The everlasting affection that Sweden has for cardamom and buns

Buns are to the Swedes what croissants are to the French: an everyday staple that epitomises the culture. They are consumed during the daily Swedish coffee break known as fika and can be found everywhere, from supermarkets and cafes to artisanal bakeries. There is even an annual celebration called Cardamom Bun Day, held on May 15.

Eating a cardamom bun (known as kardemummabulle) is a feast for the senses. The first thing you notice is its intricate braided design, dusted with cardamom and sugar. In close quarters, the heady scent of cardamom seduces you. Biting into a bun, you are met with a combination of textures—the crispy top layer breaks off to reveal a soft and buttery interior. The bottom is crisp and caramelised, where sugar and butter have pooled and crystallised while baking. As you eat it, the flavour of cardamom floods your tastebuds.

Buns are not the only Swedish sweet where green cardamom (elettaria cardamomum) is a key ingredient. Even though it is the third-most expensive spice in the world, cardamom is prolific in Swedish cuisine. It’s used year-round in waffles, pancakes, biscuits such as kardemummakakor (cardamom cookies), and cakes such as mjuk pepparkak (Swedish spice cake). It is consumed at Christmas in risgrynsgröt (rice porridge), baked rice pudding, and in drinks such as glogg (mulled wine), mumma (a Christmas drink featuring lager and stout), Falcons Julmumma (a brand of beer produced by Carlsberg Sverige), and Julmust (a seasonal soft drink featuring spices).

Culinary archaeologist Daniel Serra, who co-wrote the book An Early Meal: A Viking Age Cookbook and Culinary Odyssey, believes that cardamom first became of interest in Scandinavia in the 13th century for both its medicinal and culinary use, as documented in the old cookbook Libellus de Arte Coquinaria. “There was an idea in medieval medical practices that cardamom was good for you when it was cold, which makes sense because it would be of interest in a cold climate like ours.”

However, a lack of historical records means it is not known exactly how and when cardamom was first used in Sweden, but written documentation shows that the spice entered the country’s lexicon in the 16th century. And while there are different theories as to how cardamom made its way from the Indian subcontinent, where it originated, to Sweden, no one knows the exact route or means.

Ulrika Torell, a curator at The Nordic Museum in Stockholm and author of Sugar and Sweet Things: A Cultural-Historical Study of Sugar Consumption in Sweden, added, “Cardamom appears in several recipes for seasoning wine, spirits, and confectionery from at least the 16th century, but was probably used earlier as well.”

Despite cardamom being documented in Sweden some 500 years ago, it took much longer for the spice to be widely consumed. The establishment of commercial trading by the Swedish East India Company with India, China, and the Middle East in the 18th century increased the availability of spices in Sweden, according to Elisabeth Johansson, pastry chef and judge on The Great Swedish Bake Off. Johansson is also a judge for Sweden’s annual Pastry Chef of the Year competition.

Johansson noted that cardamom was featured in several recipes in the book Helpful Guide in Housekeeping for Young Women by Casja Warg in 1755. Nonetheless, cardamom and other spices were consumed primarily by the wealthy.