One of the best ways to know about a local culture is to mingle with a local family on a festive day. I accidentally joined a traditional Crayfish Party held every summer in Sweden with my friend’s family, and here’s the story:
Back in August 2006, I stayed in Amsterdam to pursue my study. On summer holiday, I came to Helsingborg, the southernmost town in Sweden, to visit one of my best friends Jiun, a Malaysian nationality married to a Swedish husband named Christian.
Jiun said, “Today is Christian’s mom’s birthday. We are going to have a party at her place.”
I had not met her mother-in-law before. I felt kinda awkward with the last minute invitation. But how could I say no? They had been nice to show me around and took me to other cities nearby during my visit. I even stayed at their place.
Hopefully the summer party would not turn icy.
Rainbow-colored paper garland tied up on tree branches at the apartment courtyard utterly made a statement on where the party’s at. A long table covered with a red cloth was ready to use, although some dishes were still on the way from upstairs.
About half an hour later, boiled crayfish with crown dill, salmon carpaccio with couscous, cheese, grapes, crackers, bread, several bottles of beer, sparkling water and a bottled juice were ready to serve.
A woman wearing a floral-pattern shirt appeared, showing her joyous smile to all of us. She was Mrs. Malmquist, Christian’s mother. On that day, she was the happiest woman in the world with the presence of a very small number of guests: Christian, his brother, Mrs. Malmquist’s black schnautzer, Jiun and I. The family also proudly said that their mother was the master chef of all the dishes on the table.
“Hello everybody!” She deliberately greeted in English, knowing that I’m not a Svenska (Swedish) speaker.
Coincidentally, her birthday was in concurrent with the crayfish party, or kräftskiva, held yearly in August nationwide. The story behind the Swedish festive event was a tool to melt the ice between she and I.
Once only consumed by royals in the 16th century, crayfish has been a Swedish traditional dish since the mid-19th century, leading to fear of its extinction. The government restricted its fishing allowance in the early 20th century to only 2 months in a year starting from August, making crayfish consumption a rare moment and deserve a celebration. Although the restriction was abolished in 1994, the tradition lives on.
Still, the population of crayfish in the country is not enough to feed the nation. Nowadays, most crayfish in the market are imported from Turkey, China, Spain and the US, so everyone can enjoy it all year round. The ones we were about to eat, she said, was from Turkey.
Then, we raised a bottle of beer and sing the merry drinking song as part of the tradition before grabbing the food. I was excluded from the singing part, since I could not catch a single word from the lyric.
The clinking sound took turn when the bottle necks brushed each other gently.
“Skål!” Or cheers in English.
Jiun asked me how to say skål in Dutch.
We toasted one more time, in Dutch.
Peeling the crayfish was more challenging than I thought. Twisting and pulling the crustacea tail from the head seemed to be simple, but the juice splashed on the tablecloth, my shirt for several times and even my eyes before I sucked it. I pulled it with force after twisting, that was a big mistake.
Once I managed to make that noisy SLURRPP sound of juice sucking, I finally won the battle! I loved the subtle yet profound taste of the dill, fusing with the soft meat and its broth. Not to mention other dishes I could consume effortlessly. Drinking beers after the meal felt like a reward after the battle.
Fortunately, I could contribute something to share, a bottle of chocolate-flavored beer from beer hunting in Helsingør this afternoon. Thank God they liked it! Because I didn’t, and I was glad I didn’t need to carry it back to Amsterdam.
It was my first time to eat Swedish delicacy at home of a real Swedish family, not at IKEA. The Malmquists always engaged me in the conversation to make me feel welcome in the new environment. Mrs. Malmquist asked me how I met Jiun. That was another interesting subject besides the history of crayfish.
When I was a college student in Malaysia, I met Jiun in a French class at Alliance Française in Kuala Lumpur. We have become BFF ever since; our correspondence was still on until I returned to Indonesia and moved to Amsterdam the year after for continuing my study. However, there were times when we lose contact. Until we accidentally met on MSN Chat, updating each other’s information. So we decided Sweden as the new meeting point.
As the breeze gently blew my face and hair when evening came, the sun was still shining upon us without the usual burning effect. That’s the beauty of summer in western countries, when the daylight doesn’t end that soon. Moreover, there was no interrupting drizzle, rain and coldness for the whole week during my visit.
I thought to myself. Sometimes the universe works in a mysterious way.
I should have taken a Dutch lesson instead of French, whereas Jiun should have taken Swedish. Why on earth we all have to move to another continent just to see each other again after so many years?
Either way, I was happy that she’s more than just fine. She’s found her Mr. Right and the new family who accepts her the way she is.
Both crayfish party and reunion went perfectly, from weather, food to people.