As a non-Swedish speaker, I soon noticed that every Swede I met in Stockholm would immediately address me in impeccable English. Yet there was one word they didn’t translate: “Fika”.
“Fika? What’s that?” I asked when I first heard it.
I was met with several responses, all shrugged, all incomplete in the eyes of the native speakers.
“It’s… kind of like a coffee break,” said one.
“It’s having coffee and cake with friends,” said another.
“Like Afternoon Tea in England?” I asked.
“Yes. But also… no. It’s a Swedish thing.”
It’s a Swedish thing is essential to understanding fika. It’s not just a coffee break; it’s a cultural institution.
Both a verb and a noun, to ‘take fika’, or simply ‘to fika’, means to take some time out of your day to stop whatever you’re doing and catch up with friends over a coffee and a few nibbles. It’s not just about the food and drink though – the social aspect is just as important as the coffee beans. Fika is something you do with other people. It’s something to be savoured.
Unlike traditional English Afternoon Tea, fika can be taken at any time of the day, often more than once, every day of the week. You can fika at home, at work or in a café.
Traditionally, fika implies coffee-drinking – unsurprising, given that Swedes have one of the highest coffee consumption rates per capita in the world. However, if you don’t drink coffee then don’t worry – teas, hot chocolate and cold drinks are usually on offer too.
Of course, you can’t fully enjoy fika without a bite to eat. Again, tradition dictates that fika-fare is usually sweet – think cake, cinnamon rolls and cookies (check out these recipes for ‘fikabröd’ inspiration). Popular options include kanelbullar (cinnamon buns spiced with cardamom), hasselnötsflarn (cookies), lussekatter (saffron buns) and chokladbollar (buttery chocolate balls). That said, savoury finger food also has its place within fika, from small sandwiches to smörgåsbords.
Given how tea and coffee breaks in a lot of countries are increasingly an ‘on the go’ affair, it’s hardly surprising that the Swedes are holding onto fika tightly. Fika is about more than just grabbing a coffee on your way to work, or drinking a solitary cup of tea at your desk – it’s about taking the time out of your day that’s needed to unwind, connect with the people around you, and appreciate the little things in life.
Frankly, fika is an institution I’ll happily steal from Sweden. Have you ever tried it?