Modern coffee culture in the United States is largely grab and go: line up, get your drink, walk back to the office with it or drink it in your car. In Sweden, they have fika, a cultural institution that recognizes the need for short breaks in the day. One of these traditions sounds much more appealing than the other.
Fika, literally speaking, is the Swedish word for a coffee break—but that doesn’t really sum it up. It’s about taking a break during your day to socialize with friends and colleagues or simply to have a few minutes of quiet. It just so happens that this break, in the Swedish tradition, often involves a mug of coffee and a sweet pastry. “I think that really resonates with people,” said writer Anna Brones said of fika’s appeal outside of Sweden.
The tradition stems from post-church socials in the early 1900s, said Brones, author of the book Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break, which will be released on April 7 by Ten Speed Press. Brones herself is half Swedish, spent time in the country as a child, and lived there as an adult. “Fika is just something that I was aware of from an early age,” she said. The book’s recipes were developed by Brones and illustrator Johanna Kindvall, who is also Swedish.
That weekly chance to catch up with others in your community and share a snack together evolved into the daily ritual still popular today. Even in modern times—and Sweden is as modern a country as any other with a strong coffee culture—the tradition of fika is hanging on. “I think every culture has these social celebrations that they hold on to,” Brones said of its enduring appeal. Here are eight ways you can embrace the spirit of fika in your own style.
So many of us take our “breaks” during the day at our desks. We eat lunch there. If we get up to grab coffee, we head right back to the office with it. And we work late, so supper is rushed. Fika is not fika without a break involved—so even if it’s just for ten minutes, get up from your work, sit down with a hot drink, and relax. “It’s an intentional act,” says Brones. “It doesn’t just happen.”
“Coffee is one of those things that a lot of cultures drink,” Brones said, “and it’s interesting to see how other cultures do it.” Fika doesn’t have to involve coffee, but it often does—and coffee just goes really well with something sweet. If you’re making it yourself—whether you prefer drip, French press, pour over, or something else—enjoy the process. This is not the time for instant brew.
A sweet baked good, preferably homemade, is one of the pleasures of fika. There are kanelbullar, Swedish cinnamon buns, and semlor, Swedish cream buns. Sockerbullar are sweet buns filled with cream, and pepparkakor are ginger snaps. There’s no wrong way to do this, really—just think sugar.
“When you say ‘fika’ people don’t just think coffee,” Brones said. Tea also has a place in the tradition—and if a mug of tea is how you relax or take a break during the day, then it fits perfectly with the intention of fika.
Fika can happen at home or in the office—coffee/break rooms in Swedish offices are often called the “fika room,” Brones said—but if heading to a favorite cafe to sit with your drink and snack is your preferred way to relax, that works too. There are even some Scandinavian-focused cafes in North America, like Toronto’s Fika (in Kensington Market) or the cafe in the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis.
For many North Americans, Ikea is the gateway drug into Swedish culture and design. Its well-designed mini rooms, all set out along a prescribed path, are relaxing, particularly because you don’t have to put them together with an allen key yourself. The cafeteria has delicious meatballs and inexpensive desserts. Low prices mean you can treat yourself—perhaps to a cute mug or serving tray for fika at home. And if you have kids, dropping them off at Småland is a treat in and of itself.
There is something very calming about having a routine as one of your daily habits, even a small one like making coffee or tea. Grinding coffee beans, getting your French press ready, and then pushing the plunger down—that’s a great way to start your morning. Or start drinking matcha and perfect your whisking technique. Whatever it is, the preparation for fika can be a break in and of itself.
Sweden’s clean, modern, whimsical design is part of the reason why we love Ikea. This aesthetic is on full display in Fika, thanks to Kindvall’s illustrations. You can bring it into your home in other ways as well—for example, with this plate from Marimekko or this serving platter from Picknick. Coffee tastes a tiny bit better from a fun mug, like this one featuring Moomin.
Terri Coles is a freelance writer living in St. John’s, Newfoundland. She’s a recovering picky eater.