Outside of Louisiana, Sweden is probably the only place where crayfish are widely consumed.
Crayfish or Kräftor have been eaten in Sweden since the 16th century. According to the official website of Sweden, it was a sought-after delicacy enjoyed only by aristocracy until the mid-19th century when its consumption spread to the middle classes and then became a national delicacy by the 20th century. The threat of over-fishing prompted restrictions on river crayfishing, limiting the season to a couple of months from August. Since then, Swedes all over the world gather together to “eat, drink and be merry” marking and celebrating the opening of the crayfish season.
I experienced my first Kräftskiva or crayfish party several summers ago at a private hunting ground in Sweden. It was a 3-day event, starting with the laying of the traps in the creeks at night. The smaller crayfish were put back in the creek and the bigger ones were cooked the next day. On the last day of the feast, the “barn” was decorated with party paraphernalia: paper-covered table, cone-shaped paper party hats and paper bibs sporting crayfish print for each guest and paper lanterns that look like “smiling full moon”. There was eating, drinking and the mandatory singing until the wee hours of the morning. I have been to many other Kräftskivas since then, most of them here in the US.
Last night, we attended our second crayfish party of the year. It was hosted by the Swedish American Chamber of Commerce San Diego and held at the House of Sweden (International Houses) in Balboa Park.
In contrast to the crawfish boil in Louisiana where they are cooked in heavy spices and with corn and potatoes (check out Chef Ryans Foodbuzz on Crawfish boil), the Swedish way of cooking crayfish involved cooking in brine and ale, flavored with huge amounts of crown dill (flowers of dill plant).
Before you start visualizing members of the SACC-San Diego setting crayfish traps at Rose Canyon Creek in San Diego and then dunking live crayfish in a big cauldron of booze and dill, crayfish cooked the Swedish way can be ordered directly from crayfish farms in Oregon (or any crayfish farm near you) or, as in the case of last night’s main dish, purchased from any IKEA store. They may bear the stamp Imported from China, but IKEA managers (in San Diego) assured us that they were cooked using the special Swedish recipe.(Do I hear a collective sigh of relief…or was that just a room full of Swedes doing their typical “gasp” of agreement?)
So, how does one eat a Swedish crayfish? Crayfish are served cold, eaten and enjoyed using your fingers. It is acceptable and customary (and almost mandatory, if you don’t want to look like an outsider) to suck the juices noisily off them before shelling. Side dishes play a minor role but may include cold cuts, salad, bread and cheese served buffet style. Beer may be served to wash down the food but a traditional Kräftskiva includes snaps, such as Aquavit or Vodka served in shots.
Actually, I find this to be the second best part of a crayfish party (the best being the crayfish, of course!). Perhaps it’s the Asian culture of karaoke in me but a Swedish crayfish party has a noisy, rowdy atmosphere of fun and singing. As soon as the crayfish are served, the host usually leads the guests in singing Helan Går (pronounced Helan gor), a drinking song loosely translated as “drinking the whole shot” (or so I was told). After two verses, everybody raises their snaps glasses and yells Skål! (Cheers!). This continues for hours (or well until the next morning…!) , with the host topping each snap glass after every drinking song. The whole repertoire is varied with some songs resembling Christmas carols while others just too x-rated to even be translated into English. At the risk of not being invited to next year’s event, no video of the rowdy singing last night will be shown in this post but you are most free to search YouTube for hundreds of them. A few photos will be shown, however, to show the proper way of behaving at a Swedish crayfish party.
If you are lucky to get invited to a Kräftskiva anytime soon, it bears repeating the following advice to ensure a fun, enjoyable night (all offered in jest, of course):
- Wear the funny, conical paper hats. They are part of the party ensemble and will only enhance your experience of an authentic Swedish tradition.
- Wear the bib. If rolls of paper towels are available on the table, sit near one or better yet, grab it and don’t let go. Your dry cleaner will thank you later.
- Practice the Swedish drinking songs. Hard copies in multiples are almost always provided at every crayfish party so take advantage and start reading before the imbibing begins. It doesn’t matter whether you speak or read Swedish. It only matters that you can say Skoal! at the end of every song.
- Most importantly, have fun and socialize. You’ll never know if you will be sitting next to another Charles Lindberg or Ingvar Kamprad (founder of IKEA).
Now, if your goal is to host your own Kräftskiva (well…some of you might.) and you have access to fresh, live crayfish, here is a recipe for Swedish Crayfish. Please use with caution since this recipe was handed down to me by every Swede I met in every crayfish party I have attended, usually after several shots of Akvavit:
How to cook crayfish the Swedish way:
- lots of live, huge crayfish (live ones only, please. do not use dead ones)
- several bottles of beer, vodka or akvavit (depending on how much crayfish you have but you will never go wrong by using more)
- a whole bunch of dill crown, lots and lots (using regular dill might not give you the same results, so try to get the dill crowns)
Dump all ingredients in a large cauldron and boil. When cooked, let simmer for 24 hours. Drain and serve cold.
And as a parting gift, here are the lyrics to the traditional Swedish drinking song, Helan Går. If you have to learn one Swedish snap song, this is it. Memorize it and you’ll definitely be invited to the next drinking party. Check the internet for karaoke versions (or YouTube for live concert versions).
sjung hopp fader faderallan lej
sjung hopp faderallan lej
Och den som inte helan tar
han inte heller halvan får
sjung hopp fadrallan lej
There is a second verse but this first verse should get you by as long as you remember to yell one word at the end:
Recipes for Kräftskiva side dishes: