Photo by Susanna Svensson/Shutterstock
Cinnamon rolls topped with pearl sugar are a popular treat at fika time.
What actually is “fika”? How do you pronounce it? Best yet, how do you do it right?
Hej, tack, and . . . fika? Yes, that fika is one of the most common Swedish words for travelers to know—right there after “hello” and “thank you”—will most likely be no surprise to anyone who is a fan of a coffee break (or two, or three).
But to call fika a mere “coffee break” is doing it a disservice. So what is it, exactly? Grab a cup of coffee, and let’s dive in.
Used as both a noun and a verb, fika is a Swedish institution. In the loosest possible sense, it typically refers to coffee consumption with a snack; those snacks can be sweet (cardamom bun, cookie, chocolates) or savory (a small open-faced sandwich). Don’t like coffee, which is typically dark roast and unlimited during fika? Tea, soda, or any other drink will do.
Fika is a social affair: the best sort of coffee afternoon at home, where conversation rambles and there is no agenda, or a morning break with coworkers in an office. At many workplaces in Sweden, these fika breaks, called fikarast or fikapaus, are even built into the daily calendar as an activity, reports Matthias Kamann in How to Be Swedish. The communal nature of these “scheduled pauses” is thought to foster stronger connections and feelings of a more equitable workplace, according to the BBC.
The word fika is an inverted form of “kaffi,” the 19th-century Swedish word for “coffee.” This shuffling of the syllables (and the removal of the other “f”) was to disguise the practice, since the very importation and consumption of coffee was banned five times between 1756 and 1817, reports the Local Sweden. The reason? Some point to the influence of Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, the physician to the admiralty, who considered it a threat to Swedish culture, deeming it a French “foreign custom” that was “infecting our people.”
Other historians have hypothesized that the bans were motivated by the European trade crisis. Once the final ban ended in 1822, coffee consumption shot up. Today, Sweden is one of the top coffee-consuming countries in the world, downing an average of 18 pounds of coffee per capita per year, per Mental Floss.
In Swedish, emphasis is on the f—fffeeekah. In English, you can just say it how it appears phonetically: fee-ka.
Popular Swedish snacks and baked goods that are eaten with fika include:
A sweet twisted bread flavored with cardamom or cinnamon and glazed with egg wash. Unlike in the United States, where buns and rolls are often topped with icing, vetebullar and kanelbullar are typically sprinkled with crunchy beads of pearl sugar.
The humble chocolate ball is simple but beloved: made of oatmeal, cocoa powder, melted butter, sugar, and vanilla all mixed together before being rolled into small balls and coated with shredded coconut.
Something of a catch-all term, småkakor are usually cookies that can be eaten in two bites and are made with lots of butter.
A lightly baked chocolate cake that gets its gooiness from a short, 15-minute bake time. Made with cocoa powder, flour, and lots of butter; top with fresh cream if you’re feeling indulgent.
A Swiss roll by any other name, a rulltårta is a sponge cake layered with filling—most commonly, jam and cream—then rolled and cut into slices.
Imagine a mini pie crust filled with a mix of butter, sugar, and crushed almonds, then topped with a layer of white or pink icing.
Take a look at your schedule and see where you have time for a break a few hours after you’ve started work or a few hours before you’re supposed to end it. Block off 30-40 minutes on your calendar. (If you have roommates, invite them to join you.)
When it’s time to fika, pour yourself a cup of coffee (or tea, or soda) and put out a selection of cookies or snacks. Resist the urge to pick up your phone; instead, use the time to give yourself a break from screens and be free from responsibility.
If you want to fika with a friend, arrange a virtual fika. Set up a time to meet, then pour yourself a drink, arrange some snacks, and call up a contact who is doing the same in their corner of the world.
An illustrated how-to guide—with recipes!
A pocket guide to fika, with facts, quotes, tips, and 20 recipes for sweet and savory fika bites.
Coffee subscription, Atlas Coffee Club
Buy now: from $9, atlascoffeeclub.com
Take caffeine lovers on a world tour with Atlas Coffee Club, which offers monthly gift subscriptions of single-origin coffees sourced from more than 50 countries, including Kenya, Tanzania, Colombia, Brazil, and Indonesia.
Six-pack of cardamom buns, Fabrique Bakery
Buy now: $39, goldbelly.com
Get some of those famed vetebullar delivered directly from Stockholm, where Fabrique Bakery has been turning out its buns since 2008.
Tiny Pies gift box
Buy now: $55, goldbelly.com
OK, pie might not be the most traditional fika treat, but if you’ve learned anything by now, it’s that the practice is wide open for customization. The four-pack of “single serve” pies—shipped straight from the Austin, Texas, bakery—grants a few bites each of the crunchy pecan with flaky crust; the dangerously dense Texas two step, a hybrid brownie-pecan pie; the bright and tart cherry pie; and the classic apple pie with a hint of cinnamon.
One-of-a-kind coffee mug
Buy now: $38, eastfork.com
All handmade mugs from Asheville’s East Fork are crafted with regionally sourced clay. Even better? East Fork also gives back to its community by supporting various racial equity organizations in western North Carolina through its “Spread Wealth, Shop Seconds” program.
VSSL Java coffee grinder
Buy now: $145, vsslgear.com
Cold brew, French press, drip, and more: With 50 settings, this coffee grinder allows for supreme customization of grind size, which means better coffee for fika, and for you. Bonus: It’s compact and portable—all the better for taking your fika on the road.
Cup and saucer set for four
Buy now: $65, store.metmuseum.org
This set of four stoneware cups and saucers is as pretty as it is practical: They display the blooms from Bouquet of Flowers, a pastel drawing in the Met collection by French artist Odilon Redon.
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