The fermented Baltic herring, known as surströmming, is so pungent it should be opened outdoors. Three days after you’ve opened a can of surströmming, the smell will hang in the air. Read more about the pungent Swedish fish dish.
More or less every country in the world has a local delicacy which from the outside look somewhat unusual. However, one of the most unusual is the infamous Swedish delicacy of surströmming. The delicacy which smells of rotten eggs has gained a following online of daring gastronomes filming themselves trying the seafood.
If you believe YouTube videos are nothing more than exaggerated click bait, you should think twice. How is this something humans could eat?
Surströmming has been a part of the local Swedish cuisine since the 16th century and possibly earlier and has acquired something of an enigma status due to its reputation for overpowering odor. To produce Surströmming requires a minimum of 6 months fermenting of the Baltic herring, which is a smaller cousin of the more common Atlantic Herring. To ferment, the fish is placed in a weak brine solution and kept in barrels, while producers add in just enough salt to prevent the raw fish from rotting during the process.
Directly translated surströmming means “sour herring”. Packaged in cans, the release of smell when a can is opened has been called the most overwhelming food smell in the world. Therefore manufacturers usually recommend opening the cans outside regardless of where it will be eaten.
Surstromming hails from northern Sweden, where it is most commonly eaten, but tins of the seafood are available from most large supermarkets across Sweden. In spring, the spawning fish are caught between Sweden and Finland, then the heads are removed and the bodies are stored in a series of salted water solutions. After roughly two months, the partially preserved herrings are transferred to airtight tins where they continue to ferment for up to another year.
As a food, it is very different to a fish-based meal that most people are used to. However, the native Swedes calmly enjoy their own can of surströmming. In recent years a museum has been dedicated to the divisive dish, and some restaurants dedicate a whole day to eating it to avoid offending other customers’ noses.
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Each year’s batch of surströmming could not be sold before the third Thursday in August by royal decree. The mid-20th century ordinance was meant to tackle fermentation corner-cutting. While this rule is no longer on the books, the date is still celebrated as the delicacy’s premiere day. Surströmming Day is celebrated particularly in Sweden’s High Coast region, the birthplace of the dish.
It is great entertainment, seeing people both be shocked and surprised at surströmming. The first is the odor, then how it tastes but many are surprised by the dish once they get past the initial shock.
There are a few narratives around the history of surströmming and how it came to be. One theory comes from the evidence of humans fermenting fish some nine-thousand, two hundred years ago — 80 centuries before the age of the Vikings — as discovered by researcher Adam Boethius of Lund University and his team of 16 archaeologists. At a site in southern Sweden, they unearthed close to 200,000 fish bones, contained in bundles with pine bark and seal fat and covered in wild boar skin. The fish weren’t salted, as the discovery predates salt, but they were placed in the ground to ferment.
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The sophistication and scale of the endeavor has caused archaeologists to rethink the idea that people in Scandinavia at the time were nomadic hunters and gatherers.
Life is all about discovery and trying new things. Why not try the dish yourself and see just what this Swedish delicacy is and how nice it can be. Get your can and see for yourself just what people talk about, and open yourself to a new eating experience.
The Stinky Swedish Fish Dish, written by Tor Kjolberg