It’s hard to dress up a meatball. Be they polpette in Italy, kofta in Lebanon, faggots in Britain, kotlety in Russia or thit vien in Vietnam, meatballs are a homely food wherever they are eaten. They should be made first at your mother’s side, as the fire crackles and pans bubble, and then later to conjure up her memory.
Sweden’s köttbullar are no different. Besides mixing a blend of beef and pork with some milk and breadcrumbs, the country’s meatballs must be made with love. They are at the centre of any midsummer smorgasbord or Christmas julbord. Perched on top of mashed potato, doused in a creamy gravy and laced with lingonberry jam, they are a savoury reminder of the enduring devotion of Swedish mothers.
But Swedish meatballs are no longer just a domestic dish. They have gone global, thanks to the efforts not of Sweden’s mothers but of one giant furniture company: IKEA.
IKEA started serving meatballs more than three decades ago. Concerned that customers navigating its endless aisles of flat-pack furniture would grow faint with hunger, the company opened restaurants in its stores. Severin Sjöstedt, the chef who spent almost a year developing the original recipe for IKEA, has said that the firm wanted to make something that was easy to serve, tasty and affordable for most people.
It succeeded. The Swedish behemoth flogs more than a billion meatballs each year at its stores around the world. IKEA serves meatballs in almost every one of its restaurants and most are made to the same recipe. The sheer number that it dishes up means it can keep the price of its meatballs as competitive as that of its bookcases. Today, no trip to IKEA is complete without the purchase of several hundred unnecessary tea lights, a vicious spat with your spouse and a keenly priced plate of meatballs – served as mor used to make them.
And yet, in a shocking revelation, in 2018 Sweden admitted that its meatballs are in fact an import. Forget the Swedish mothers – köttbullar are based on a recipe that King Charles XII brought back from Turkey in the early 18th century. “My whole life has been a lie,” mourned an official Twitter account that promotes Sweden to the world. Such agonies are misplaced. The Swedes have adopted the comfort food of another country, made it their own and persuaded the rest of the world to love it too. Mother would approve.•