Cardamom has been a key spice in Swedish culture since medieval times, and now it’s popularity in soft, fluffy Swedish buns is taking the pastry global.

Buns are to the Swedes what croissants are to the French: an everyday staple that epitomises the culture. They are consumed during the daily Swedish coffee break known as fika and can be found everywhere from supermarkets and cafes to artisanal bakeries. There is even an annual day of celebration called Cardamom Bun Day held on 15 May.

Eating a cardamom bun (known as kardemummabulle) is a feast for the senses. The first thing you notice is its intricate braided design, dusted with cardamom and sugar. In close quarters, the heady scent of cardamom seduces you. Biting into a bun, you are met with a combination of textures – the crispy top layer breaks off to reveal a soft and buttery interior. The bottom is crisp and caramelised, where sugar and butter have pooled and crystallised while baking. As you eat it, the flavour of cardamom floods your tastebuds.

Buns are not the only Swedish sweet where green cardamom (elettaria cardamomum) is a key ingredient. Even though it is the third-most expensive spice in the world, cardamom is prolific in Swedish cuisine. It’s used year-round in waffles, pancakes, biscuits such as kardemummakakor (cardamom cookies), and cakes such as mjuk pepparkak (Swedish spice cake). It is consumed at Christmas in risgrynsgröt (rice porridge), baked rice pudding and found in drinks such as glogg (mulled wine), mumma (a Christmas drink featuring lager and stout), Falcons Julmumma (a brand of beer produced by Carlsberg Sverige) and Julmust (a seasonal soft drink featuring spices).

Culinary archaeologist Daniel Serra, who co-wrote the book An Early Meal – a Viking Age Cookbook and Culinary Odyssey, believes that cardamom first became of interest in Scandinavia in the 13th Century for both its medicinal and culinary use, as documented in the old cookbook Libellus de Arte Coquinaria. “There was an idea in medieval medical practices that cardamom was good for you when it was cold, which makes sense why it would be of interest in a cold climate like ours.”Elisabeth Johansson is a pastry chef and judge on The Great Swedish Bake Off (Credit: Conny Johansson)

Elisabeth Johansson is a pastry chef and judge on The Great Swedish Bake Off (Credit: Conny Johansson)

However, a lack of historical records means it is not known exactly how and when cardamom was first used in Sweden, but written documentation shows that the spice entered the country’s lexicon in the 16th Century. And while there are different theories as to how cardamom made its way from the Indian subcontinent, where it originated, to Sweden, no one knows the exact route or means.

Ulrika Torell, a curator at The Nordic Museum in Stockholm and author of Sugar and Sweet Things: A Cultural-Historical Study of Sugar Consumption in Sweden, added, “Cardamom appears in several recipes for seasoning wine, spirits and confectionery from at least the 16th Century, but was probably used earlier as well.”

Despite cardamom being documented in Sweden some 500 years ago, it took much longer for the spice to be widely consumed. The establishment of commercial trading by the Swedish East India Company with India, China and the Middle East in the 18th Century increased the availability of spices in Sweden, according to Elisabeth Johansson, pastry chef and judge on The Great Swedish Bake Off. Johansson is also a judge for Sweden’s annual Pastry Chef of the Year competition.

Johansson noted that cardamom was featured in several recipes in the book Helpful Guide in Housekeeping for Young Women by Casja Warg in 1755. Nonetheless, cardamom and other spices were consumed primarily by the wealthy.


On 13 December, Sweden celebrates Santa Lucia day, sharing freshly baked sweet goods like gingerbread cookies and Lucia buns (lussekatter), made with saffron, raisins (or currants) and almonds. These seasonal s-shaped buns are part of the 400-year-old-custom celebrating Saint Lucia, a young girl who secretly brought food to persecuted Christians in Rome, lighting her way with a candlelit wreath on her head.

Fast forward a few centuries when sweet buns came into fashion, likely styled after savoury buns called semlor, traditionally flavoured with caraway. Semlor originated in Germany but were eaten in Sweden from the 15th to 18th Centuries. “I know that the typical buns associated with Swedish fika are broadly an invention of the 20th Century, from roughly somewhere between 1910 to 1930,” said Torell. The buns were made in bakeries, rather than at home.

It wasn’t until after World War Two in 1950, when baking staples became cheaper and more accessible in Sweden, that buns became more consumed. “Sugar, butter and flour were more widely available, so more home bakers started to bake pastries. Prior to that they were expensive to cook, and not accessible to ordinary people,” Johansson said.

Today, the buns consumed for fika come in varieties like cinnamon, cardamom, saffron and semla (a cardamom bun filled with almond paste and cream). Cardamom is the only spice that is a base ingredient across all the different varieties.

Consumer demand for handmade quality buns and bread over the last 30 years has led to a mushrooming of artisanal bakeries in Sweden. One popular bakery in Stockholm is Lillebrors Bageri, which was established by Stefan Berg in 2016. Berg followed his older brother into the bakery business and has worked for nearly 25 years in the industry, including a decade at Stockholm’s Valhallabageriet, renowned for its sourdough bread and pastries. Lillebrors Bageri sells around 400 cardamom buns each weekday and around 1,200 buns each weekend day.

“When I first started baking, cinnamon buns were more popular, but cardamon was aways in the dough,” Berg said. “Around 15 years ago, there was a switch from cinnamon to cardamom. I believe people like the fresh taste of cardamom.” He added, “Cardamom buns are easy to eat. They are not fancy, but they are delicious and unpretentious.”Lillebrors Bageri sells around around 1,200 cardamom buns each weekend day (Credit: Stefan Berg)

Lillebrors Bageri sells around around 1,200 cardamom buns each weekend day (Credit: Stefan Berg)

Olle Eriksson, the bakery’s vice president, added that the ritual of fika is “embedded deep within the culture”. “It’s part of the workplace. It’s part of getting to know new family,” he said. “If you’re supposed to meet your in-laws for the first time, it will normally happen over a cardamon bun.”

Berg and Eriksson explained how perfecting the texture of the dough is intrinsic to the success of buns. “I’d say the bun is more about the texture than the cardamom itself,” Berg said. “If you do not have the texture right, the cardamom won’t save it. It needs to be soft and chewy.”

Eriksson added, “The mixing is important. If you mix the dough too much, it will become dry. If you don’t do it enough, it’s going to be gooey. It’s a craft.”

Perhaps a testimony to the deliciousness of the buns is the fact that they have been growing in popularity in other parts of the world in cities like Madrid, Berlin and Tokyo. They have also become increasingly popular in the UK and the US. In London, you can find an array of Swedish pastries at SoderbergFabriqueBagerietMiel Bakery and Buns from Home. While across the pond in New York City, they’re sold at La CabraFabriqueSmor and Otway Bakery.

Fabrique bakery chain founder Charlotta Zetterstrom said, “We have the same buns across London, Stockholm and New York. When we opened in London and New York we sold buns from day one. Both New Yorkers and Londoners were curious, tried them and loved them. The taste and the texture of the cardamom bun is unique due to the soft dough and the buttery filling. Once you eat them, you become addicted.”

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