As a visitor to Sweden Fika is one of several words, if not the first Swedish word you will learn. The literal translation Fika is the act of having a coffee, which although part of many cultures across the world, how does does the Swedish phenomenon differ?
The word Fika originates from a back-slang of an early variant of Swedish word for coffee, kaffi, which soon became synonymous with the social aspect of drinking coffee, much more than just the beverage itself. Today Fika can take place in a coffee shop, at work or at home with friends and family, and is the focus point that facilitates human connections. This Swedish daily ritual usually includes a sweet cake or bread, most notably the cinnamon roll. This may not appear too distant from the British afternoon tea (drinking tea and eating cake), but given the habitual nature of Fika, for the British it is perhaps slightly more on par to a sociable drink in the pub after work.
The institution that is Fika has grown well beyond the borders of Sweden and is a phenomenon that is being ever more adopted across the world. In London for example, you can find a growing number of restaurants where you can take your daily Fika, most notably ScandKitchen and Fika London. Assuming you’ve had a Fika (in Sweden or abroad), how do you perfect the formula to recreate this experience? The answer lies in breaking down a Fika into its constituent parts: the coffee, the food and the social part.
Coffee has actually been banned 5 times throughout Swedish history. Being taboo may well have fuelled a desire to drink this beverage in secret, including forcing some Swedes to drink coffee out in the woods.
Coffee is what drives the social event that is Fika. For Swedes, coffee has been the choice of drink that you would meet over. Sweden is the third largest consumer of coffee in the world, and so has a strong speciality coffee scene — the Swedes are known for drinking quality coffee in large quantities and understanding the heritage and story behind the coffee they drink. Recent trends show that Fika doesn’t always mean meeting over a coffee however, you could opt for a tea or lemonade for example.
When you’re having a Fika and your drink finishes, it means one of two things, either you need another coffee, or the the Fika has finished.
Fika in a cafe doesn’t always include something something sweet, but given the multitude of holidays about pastries in Sweden (Kanelbullens dag i.e. Cinnamon Bun day, or the Semlor buns eaten on Shrove Tuesday), a sweet treat is commonplace. The most popular sweet item is a pastry, typically either a cinnamon bun or a cardamom bun. Fabrique with outfits in Stockholm and London is particularly well known for its kardemummabullar (Cardamom Buns).
If you want to host your own Fika at home, a word of advice about being a good host. You should serve 7 different types of sweet items with Fika, any less and it would look cheap and any more would appear extravagant. For inspiration try Swedish cakes and cookies.
Fika is all about human connections, this is perhaps the most important aspect and what sets Fika apart from just having a coffee. There is no definitive answer on who to Fika with, it is very much a personal choice. Taking a Fika by yourself to relax and people watch, perhaps chatting with the cafe barista or someone new is just as acceptable as a catch-up Fika with friends to talk about any recent good times or problems.
Fika is a common practice at workplaces as well in Sweden. Typically Swedes will take two Fika breaks during the workday, around 9am and 3pm. It gives employees the chance to discuss private and professional topics in an informal setting. It can even be considered impolite not to join one’s colleagues for a Fika, so if you are invited do not decline.