Inside Sweden's bizarre obsession with salty licorice

Photo by Jelisa Castrodale.

Inside Sweden's bizarre obsession with salty licorice

Travel

Inside Sweden's bizarre obsession with salty licorice

If you spend more than 15 minutes in Sweden, you’ll realize that it’s a country with no shortage of unique, borderline unsettling foods. There’s smoked reindeer heart, tunnbrödsrulle (a hot dog topped with mashed potatoes, lettuce and shrimp salad) and surströmming (canned fermented herring with a stench strong enough to peel the wallpaper off your walls).

And then there’s salty licorice, a ridiculously popular candy that tastes like something that Krampus would give to terrible children.

I was a terrible child, which could be why I love salty licorice, and try to buy as much of it as I can whenever I visit one of the Nordic countries. When I was in Stockholm recently, I was both surprised and delighted by the amount of lakrits-related products that were for sale, many of them in stores that are dedicated to nothing but licorice. I plugged two of their addresses into Google Maps and legged it through Södermalm, past window displays for the latest novel about Lisbeth Salander – possibly the neighborhood’s most well-known resident – towards a shop with two regal black cats flanking the front door.

Photo by Jelisa Castrodale.

Södermalm is the home to one of the city’s three Lakritsroten stores (Hornsgatan 45), and its neatly arranged shelves hold more than 700 licorice-related products, everything from those standard salty candies, familiar looking lakrits fiskar (licorice fish), licorice pasta, honey, cold brew, and even potato chips.

“I didn’t understand what an obsession licorice was until I started [working] here,” employee Sofi Grenbäck told me. “My parents loved licorice and I liked it, but I didn’t love it as much as they did. When I started here I really understood that people really love licorice.”

They sure do – and they have for the better part of the past century. (The average Swede consumes more than 23 pounds of candy every year, and I’d be willing to guess what the majority of it tastes like). Malaco started selling licorice in Sweden in 1934, changing its already familiar licorice recipe to something saltier and stronger. The eye-watering, salty flavor comes from the addition of ammonium chloride, or salmiak.

Photo by Jelisa Castrodale.

Although Malaco was originally the manufacturer of the red Swedish Fish that you still sneak into movie theaters, red licorice is neither popular in Sweden, nor does it have the same strong flavor. “That doesn’t taste like licorice at all,” Grenbäck said, laughing. “It’s so funny. The United States doesn’t have the good stuff.”

After buying a bag of smoked licorice and a giant hunk of licorice and chocolate (“People go bananas for that,” Grenbäck said), I headed to Lakritshandel. The shop (Folkungagatan 112) is also a magazine stand, post office and tobacco store but, in the past decade, its focus has shifted almost entirely to licorice. As co-owner Maria Ehnemark highlighted the ever-expanding range of products they carry, she also manned the cash register for a steady stream of customers. “He always comes in for the licorice boats,” she said, talking over the head of an middle-aged man. “He puts them on his ice cream.”

But why is salty licorice such a thing in Sweden? It depends who you ask. “We’re tall and we all have low blood pressure,” Ehnemark said. “I overheard someone on the subway saying that every time he had licorice cravings, it was because his blood pressure was falling. You can’t raise your blood pressure with medicine, but you can do it with licorice. It’s also good for your digestion and for sore throats.”

Others suggest that Swedes love licorice for the same reason they love smoked reindeer heart. “We do seem to have a penchant for coming up with strange, even disgusting, foods and dishes and getting weirdly attached to them,” Karl Gunnarsson, an Icelandic-born Swedish resident told me. “Considering that I’ll destroy a bag of Djungelvrål (monkey-shaped salty licorice) in a sitting, that theory doesn’t seem all that crazy.”

No, it actually sounds delicious.

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