Spudology: Unveiling the Secrets of the Swedish Potato
If you’re a Swede or someone loving Swedish food, you probably take the potato for granted. It’s just there. Ready to be cooked and eaten. But what do you really know about the humble spud? In honor of the Swedish new potato season (nypotatis säsongen) we found out some intriguing facts about the history of potato (including the history of potatoes in Sweden), how to best cook potatoes, and some random facts that are likely to wow you if you aren’t already a potato expert. 

A Bit of Potato History 

About eight thousand years ago—if you can manage to bring your mind that far back in history—the Incas and other tribes in America grew the “papa” up in the Andes. But it wasn’t just one kind of “papa.” No, they had several different types of “papas” growing at different altitudes. 

When Francisco Pizarro and his company of merry invaders came for a visit in 1532 they tried the strange food the Indians were eating. Within 30 years the “papa” had reached pretty much all four corners of the Spanish Empire which, at the time, was rather large. 

The latin name for the spud came about in 1596 when the Swiss naturalist Gaspard Bauhin gave it the name Solanum tuberosum esculentum (people got rid of the last word after some time).

Even though the Spaniards enthusiastically shipped the potato to the four corners of their empire and, soon, to Russia and the rest of Europe, people weren’t all that keen on the taste. And as the Spaniards only exported a few of the different types of potatoes grown in America and planted them using the tubers, thereby getting exact replicas (as opposed to using seeds and having cross pollination), there weren’t many varieties and flavors. 

In England they were busy denouncing the potatoes because they felt they came from the Roman Catholic church and wanted no Pope and no potatoes! But they eventually came round. Much thanks to famine. 

And, when Prussia was hit by famine in 1744 King Frederick the Great, who happened to love the little spuds, ordered the peasantry to eat them. 

In France Antoine-Augustin Parmentier, a trained pharmacist, got captured by Prussians no less than five times during the Seven Years War. He discovered that the prison food, mainly consisting of potatoes, kept him surprisingly healthy. At the end of the war, which he survived, he became a nutritional chemist and spent his days singing his praises for potatoes. 

This was back in 1763 and by 1775 when Louis XVI decided to lift the price controls on grains and the country was swept into chaos as prices shot up, Parmentier was finally heard. Not least because he planted 40 acres of potatoes at the outskirts of Paris, hoping impoverished and hungry Parisians would steal them. He also wined and dined with the rich and famous, creating an all-potato dinner which is where Thomas Jefferson is rumored to have tasted French fries and then brought them to America.

When the potato was finally accepted by the Europeans, it brought an end to famine for some time. If the head of a wheat or rice plant grows too big it topples over and gets destroyed. There are various pests and they’re sensitive to too much and too little rain (so is, to some extent, the potato of course, just not as much). The soil for growing wheat also needs a resting period from grains (in other words, you can’t grow wheat on the same plot of land every year, so you need to let half of the land rest) and what farmers could do once the potato was brought in, was use the unused land for growing potatoes. What the potato did, in the end, was double the amount of food supply (if you look at calories).

In fact, The Smithsonian reports that, “the historian William H. McNeill has argued, the potato led to empire: “By feeding rapidly growing populations, [it] permitted a handful of European nations to assert dominion over most of the world between 1750 and 1950.”” Tragic as the rise of empires may be, the end of famine was wonderful.   

Unfortunately, in the end, pests were also imported from South America which led to the famous potato famine in Ireland and led to so many Irish immigrating to America. 

How the Potato Ended up in Sweden

If you’re Swedish (or Nordic), chances are you take the potato for granted. My family grew some in the backyard. My grandpa was partial to “mjöliga” potatoes, which some family members heartily disagreed with. Every spring my dad would get ecstatic when “nypotatis” (new potato) season arrived. And the quality of this and that potato bought at this or that store or from this or that farmer was, invariably, discussed at family gatherings. And how many dishes in Sweden consist of meat and potatoes, or fish and potatoes? A lot. 

Still, potatoes are relatively new to Sweden, especially when compared to wheat. In fact, it was only in 1655 when the first record of potatoes appeared—Olaus Rudbeck started growing potatoes in his botanical garden in Uppsala. He named the potato Peruviansk Nattskatta, which is significantly more romantic sounding than “potatis.” Alas, the name would not last and it’s possible soldiers brought home potatoes from Germany after the end of the 30-year War, which ended in 1648, in which case Rudbeck would not have been the first to grow potatoes. No one knows.

To begin with, most people grew potatoes to oh and ah over the beautiful plant, not to eat the tubers. It was only when Jonas Alströmer started growing potatoes on his farm Nolaga outside Allingsås that the potato started to be seen as a plant that was grown to be eaten. And, likely, also why in those parts of Sweden potatoes are known as “nolas” (though that could also come from the German language). But Alstömer himself called them “potatoes” and “jordpäron” i.e. “earth pears” or “soil pears” (while in France they’re “apples of the earth” or “pommes de terre”). 

Even though Alströmer praised the potato, including in his published writings that offered tips on how to grow them, people didn’t exactly embrace them with open arms. Rather, they were a bit suspicious of this new plant, though it did slowly spread across the country. However, the potato only really made a name for itself after the state got involved. There was a poor harvest in 1742, causing famine, which led to efforts to market the potato to the common man (“den gemene mannen eller allmogen”). 

In 1747, the state asked the Kungliga Vetenskapsakademin (the Royal Scientific Academy) for assistance and Alströmer, who formed part of it, was hired. This led to to the Kommerskollegiet offering a brochure in 1749 named: ”Underrättelse om Jord-Pärons Plantering, Nytta och Bruk.” 4,000 copies were printed and it became the bible for growing potatoes. 

Speaking of the bible, it was the most popular book in Sweden for “the masses” at the time. The second most popular book was the almanac, which included information on growing potatoes that year and the following. 

The first woman, Eva Ekeblad (née De la Gardie), in the Kungliga Vetenskasakademin also did her part in spreading the fame of the humble potato. Alas, she did it by recommending extracting the starch and making a powder (starch or potato flour)…and alcohol (little did she know that this would lead to lots of people producing alcohol in the backyard!)! She advocated for removing poisonous ingredients in facial powder (such as arsenic which would, ironically, later be used to combat pests on potatoes) and replacing it with potato powder. 

As famine swept through the country again in 1771 and 1772 due to poor harvests, it led to the state encouraging more potatoes to be grown and in 1773 and 1774 they went as far as handing out potatoes to plant! This was when the true turnaround for the spud came—it became a staple food. Interestingly, a lot of people didn’t like the taste of potatoes at first! Which is funny considering the delicacy good new potatoes are considered as today! 

Intriguing Facts (and Tales) About Potatoes 

Potatoes, the humble staple food most of us grew up with, are actually quite fascinating! For example, did you know that there are over 5,000 varieties? And that you can survive on just potatoes and milk for long periods of time? That’s because potatoes have almost all the vitamins you need and plenty of carbs, while milk contains protein, amino acids, and vitamins A and D. 

So if you thought potatoes are “just carbs” you’re wrong! Here are some more intriguing and fun facts about potatoes. 

Potatoes in Space

Possibly because potatoes have done more to eradicate hunger than most other plants (it has more food value per acre than any other planted crop), it was the first seed to be grown in space in 1995 on the spaceship Columbia. 

Potatoes Aren’t Roots, They’re Tubers

Potatoes are often bunched together with root vegetables, like carrots, beets, turnips, rutabaga, and parsnips. But potatoes are not root vegetables. They are tubers (tubers are like nutrient containers for plants). And while you might never have considered eating your pretty orchids, many orchids also provide edible tubers (and in the case of vanilla—an edible pod). 

Many tubers from the morning glory family are also edible, sweet potatoes being among them. So while sweet potatoes are tubers, they don’t belong to the same family of plants as the potato, which is a nightshade. And what was thought to be the world’s largest potato (found in New Zealand) turned out to be the tuber of a gourd!

Swedish Names for Potatoes

On the topic of nightshades, as mentioned earlier, one name given to the potato in Sweden was Peruviansk Nattskatta. It seems like the potato inspired quite a few different names in Sweden over the years, including Jordhpäror, Peruviansk Natskatta, Tartufeler, Tartuffler, Jordpäron, Potatoes, Potatoesväxt, Potatos, Töffel, Töffler, Potater, Poteter, Potäter, Potatoer, Päron, Potates, Potet, Potat, Potatäs, Potät, Pantoffler, Jordäplen, Potatis, Potater, Jordpära, Potaten, Pär, Pära, Potata, Knoler, Toler, Noler, and Batata. 

Swedes Eat a Lot More Potatoes Than the Average Man

Did you know that Swedes eat on average 50 kg potatoes per person per year? In the rest of the world, the average is 33.3kg. While we may eat a lot of potatoes, the largest potato known of to date is around 5 kgs. 

Potatoes Can Be Poisonous

You might know that green potatoes are poisonous—they contain solanine. However, if you cut away the green parts you’ll be fine, as that’s where the most amounts of solanine are stored, given you don’t consume too much. 

Some wild potatoes are poisonous even if they aren’t green (they contain solanine and tomatine). To get around this, the guanaco and vicuña in South America lick clay before eating potatoes. The poison then sticks to the clay and passes through the animals’ stomachs without getting absorbed in the intestine. Activated charcoal works in the same fashion, which is why it’s often administered when people accidentally ingest poison. 

Humans learnt from the llama like animals who were munching potatoes, and dunked their potatoes in a sauce made from water and edible clay (not all clays are good for eating!) before eating them. While humans started growing less poisonous varieties of potatoes over time, some of the older and more poisonous varieties are still in fashion in Bolivia and Peru today (they’re very frost tolerant) and you can buy clay powder if you wish to eat them! 

Gnocchi and Chuño

As you probably know the Italians make gnocchi from potatoes, flour, and egg, but in South America they make a gnocchi like food called chuño. This includes no flour or egg—just potato. So how do they turn it into something resembling gnocchi? They put potatoes outside on fields to freeze them on cold nights, then defrost and dehydrate them during the day (in the Andes where these are traditionally made, the shift in temperature during night and day is extreme). Repeating this process for about three days and nights, they end up with a squiggly blob.

Sounds appetizing? 


But if you squeeze the water out (which traditionally is done by gathering the potatoes in piles on a field and “dancing” on them—similar to grape pressing in Europe!) you end up with a smaller and harder version. This is then either sundried directly, or washed and sundried. And when cooked it resembles gnocchi. This is the food that fed Incan armies as it can be kept for years (even decades) without going bad. It doesn’t even need a refrigerator as this way of treating the potato is actually a natural way of freeze drying it!

Consider the famines in Europe that could have been prevented if people had had access to chuño!  

Potato Flowers as a Fashion Statement

Perhaps thanks to the aforementioned Monsieur Parmetier who wanted to inspire the people to plant potatoes Marie Antoinette is rumored to have worn potato flowers in her hair and her hubby, Louis XVI wore one in his buttonhole, which led to it being en vogue in France. Before everyone lost their heads, that is. 

Nypotatis—A Swedish Delicacy 
As it’s new potato season, we have to touch on why the new potato is seen as a delicacy. Most likely it has to do with the fact that during the long cold winter, this potato isn’t available. At least it didn’t use to be—these days you can buy new potatoes from overseas, but as any Swede will tell you—they just don’t taste the same. 

Nypotatis truly is a summer food. After September 1, you can no longer call any potato grown in Sweden nypotatis. And the very first harvests are often called färskpotatis. 

Good new potatoes are fairly small, firm and surprisingly sweet. When served with salt and butter, they’re nothing short of delicious.

How to Cook Nypotatis (New Potatoes)

Now that you know more trivia about potatoes than you’re probably ever likely to need, let’s move onto the practical stuff. 

New potatoes are boiled with a bunch of dill and a little bit of salt in Sweden. 

To prepare them, they’re scrubbed to remove any flaky pieces of skin (they aren’t peeled). It’s always best to choose potatoes of the approximate same size as then they get ready at the same time. 

Put the scrubbed potatoes into a pot of boiling water. The water should just about cover the potatoes. Add about 1-2 teaspoons of salt per liter of water. You can also add a handful of dill. 

Once the potatoes are in the pot, let boil on a low temperature (else you risk the potato skins breaking), and put the lid on. 

It’ll take approx. 15-20 minutes till the potatoes are done. You should be able to put a fork through them without feeling any resistance in the middle (i.e. no hard parts). 

As soon as they’re done, pour out the water, and remove the lid. You want any leftover water to evaporate. Some people put a towel or paper in the pot to soak up the water. 

Serve the new potatoes with some butter (Bregott!) and salt, and you’ll discover they’re a taste sensation! 

In early summer, nypotatis are often served with different kinds of fish—hot smoked salmon, pan fried cod, fried or pickled herring. No Midsummer table is complete without nypotatis. 

Nypotatis are also great for various cold potato salads and if you have leftovers, sliced and put on a sandwich with Kalles Kaviar. 

What Potatoes Should Be Used for What? 

In Sweden you have nytpotatis and regular potatoes. However, we distinguish between “mjöliga” potatoes and regular potatoes. There is no proper translation for mjöliga potatoes as people overseas don’t use this term, but directly translated, it means floury. Russet potatoes, for example, tend to be floury. These potatoes have a higher amount of starch and less water than “regular” potatoes. 

What Potatoes Should be Used for Mash? 

You can use anything but new potatoes which contain more water which will make the mash “sticky.” The best are usually the mjöliga potatoes, as they have the least amount of water. But even those can turn into a sticky mash if you stir the mash too much! (If you want something akin to glue, it’s just to pop the mash in a blender and see what happens…)

What Potatoes Should You Use for French Fries? 

There are different opinions. The mjöliga potatoes can be great as they are starchy and can give the fries a nice crunch. What is commonly referred to as bakpotatis in Sweden (large potatoes that are floury and used for oven baking), are often used as they are big enough to make sizeable fries out of. As they are starchy, they should be cut into fries first and then soaked in water. 

If you use potatoes that aren’t mjöliga, you don’t need to soak them first (but some boil them in bicarb first to get crispier fries!). 

To Peel or Not to Peel

No matter what you’re making—mash, boiled potatoes, fried potatoes, or french fries, should you peel them?

While many Swedes peel anything but the nypotatis, you actually don’t have to! Scrub the potato so there isn’t any soil stuck to it and cut away any dark spots, and then cook it. It will increase the nutritional content. 

Note that if a potato starts turning green you have to peel it, on the other hand! As mentioned, the green shows that it now contains a small amount of poison. And you either have to cut the green away, or throw the potato out. If it’s very green, it’s best to throw it out! 

Not using the potatoes right away? They're best stored away from light at 4-7 degrees Celsius (if not, they'll turn green and start to sprout faster).