Typically Swedish: Surströmming

Hi folks, welcome back to the second post in my series of “Typically Swedish” things. Today is all about Surströmming. “Sur-what?” you might ask. Let’s break it down: “Strömming” is “Baltic herring”. Ok, that sounds pretty good, right? Wait, wait, wait – there’s another part to the word: “Sur”, which unfortunately means “sour”. Do not, under any circumstances, be tricked into thinking that this is something similar to pickled herring. I love pickled herring. I do not love surströmming.

It was probably one of the most unpleasant things I’ve ever had the misfortune of eating and yet it’s, inexplicably, loved by a great many Swedish people. Ok, perhaps you’re curious by now as to what it actually is.

Surströmming

Swedish “soured (Baltic sea) herring” is fermented Baltic herring and is a staple of traditional northern Swedish cuisine. The Baltic herring, known as strömming in Swedish, is smaller than the Atlantic herring, found in the North Sea, and traditionally the definition of strömming (Baltic herring) is herring fished in the brackish waters of the Baltic north of the Kalmar Strait The herring used for surströmming are caught just prior to spawning. The fermentation starts from a lactic acid enzyme in the spine of the fish, and so the fermentation is by autolysis; together with bacteria, pungent smelling acids are formed in the fish such as propionic acid, butyric acid and acetic acid. Hydrogen sulphide is also produced. [Wikipedia]

Ok, sounds great huh? In case you’re still not convinced by just how special this stuff is, let’s get a couple of quotes from some news stories cited in Wikipedia:

In 1981, a German landlord evicted a tenant without notice after the tenant spread surströmming brine in the apartment building’s staircase. When the landlord was taken to court, the court ruled that the termination was justified when the landlord’s party demonstrated their case by opening a can inside the courtroom. The court concluded that it “had convinced itself that the disgusting smell of the fish brine far exceeded the degree that fellow-tenants in the building could be expected to tolerate.”

German food critic and author Wolfgang Fassbender wrote that “the biggest challenge when eating surströmming is to vomit only after the first bite, as opposed to before.”

Whoa! Doesn’t this just sound amazing? Don’t you just want to eat it right now? Oh, did I mention that a number of airlines have banned it as well because of fears that the cans might explode due to pressure changes in-flight? The lids and bases of the cans of surströmming you see in the stores are actually already bulging outwards. It should be noted though that producers of the fish have called the airlines “culturally illiterate” on the premise that that idea of an exploding can is purely a myth.

Photo time…

I do believe in trying things though so, much to the amusement of my family, I decided to give it a go one summer a few years ago when I was on vacation. Let me walk you through my experience:

Sniffing the surströmming

I was given the dubious honour of having a whiff of the can once it had been first opened (it made a whooshing sound as nasty fish gas escaped). As you can tell from my reaction I was none too impressed. The smell was just atrocious. Have you ever walked past a garbage can with rotting fruit and meat and fish inside on a hot summer’s day? Ok – that was the smell assaulting my nostrils at that moment.

Surströmming close-up

So here it is, out on a plate. Doesn’t look particularly appetising but doesn’t look like the worst thing imaginable. No – you don’t eat it like this. You eat it on some hard flat bread with chopped onion, cottage cheese or crème fraîche, sliced tomato and boiled potatoes. Here’s the sandwich in its finished form:

The surströmming sandwich

Not too bad, right? Well, here goes nothing – down the hatch.

Tasting the surströmming

First bite. Confusion at this foreign flavour and texture in my mouth quickly turns to horror…

Surströmming is not good

…which leads to gagging and spluttering…

Water to take away the taste

 …which leads to “Oh my God, give me water to wash away this flavour of garbage in my mouth!”

I did finish the sandwich though, because I don’t like to waste food, and I will say that, in terms of taste, surströmming is nowhere near as bad as it smells. But it’s still pretty bad, and suffice to say I will most likely not be participating in any mouldy-fish parties this year. It’s often eaten with a strong liquor like snaps or akvavit. I’m sure people in the know will strongly disagree, but I’m almost certain that this is just to burn away the flavour from your mouth!

Oh, and if you had any doubts about the smell – we put the scraps, like bones and skin and the like, in a bowl and put it some distance away from the table. The smell managed to attract just about every single fly within a 5km radius who then came over to feast on the fish.

Flies love surströmming

So, er, yeah… don’t try surströmming. Or do, if you’re one of those people who likes to try everything at least once. Loads of people I know absolutely love this stuff, so maybe you will too.

What about your own respective countries? Do you have any weird or bizarre foods? Let me know in the comments and see if you can top this delicacy!

Comments

  1. The Wife says

    1) You look so young! <3

    2) I've said it before but I'll say it again. It takes a brave man to upload photos like these on the internetz! ;-)

    3) Surströmming is surprisingly okay. Tastes mostly salty and wet.

  2. says

    I think I will avoid “surströmming” like I avoid a pothole!
    But I did enjoy reading your post and sorry I laughed out loud at those pictures of you eating a surströmming flat bread sandwich!
    I don’t recall anything too weird (there was “seni sambol with maldive fish” but it wasn’t too stinky or gagworthy – but growing up eating something makes it less weird right?

    • says

      Yeah, seems like quite a number of young Swedish people (well of course and older alike) don’t actually mind this stuff… I guess just because they grew up eating it.

  3. says

    Charles, those photos are hilarious!! Brave man….trying it after smelling it is brave indeed. I can’t believe I am saying this but…I guess some Swedish things are not that great! But I still think percentage wise, they have it good most of the time! Just avoid this particular delicacy and you’ll be good xx

  4. says

    You had me laughing through this whole post Charles! I love the “don’t try this” at the end. So funny! I think I will stay away from it. I’m so glad I wasn’t around this when I was pregnant. I had such an aversion to fish smells, this would certainly have sent me over the edge. I can’t think of anything really “interesting” that we eat here. Perhaps spam, but I’ve never eaten it. Have a great weekend!!! Thanks for the chuckles. :)

  5. says

    I, too, was laughing the whole time I was reading this, Charles. Yes, think I will avoid this Swedish delicacy. It also reminds me of an Anthony Bourdain (American Chef) No Reservations episode when he went to Iceland and tried their beloved revolting-sounding fermented shark, Hákarl, a poisonous meat when fresh, but after fermenting and then drying for 6-8 months, becomes edible and vomit inducing, according to Bourdain…who eats just about anything. You’re a brave man, but I’ll pass. But thanks so much for the warning and the laugh…I needed that today!

    • says

      Thanks Betsy – glad you had a chuckle. I haven’t had the dubious privilege of eating hákarl but have seen a few videos of it. It looked absolutely terrible. Also saw a great documentary about how it was made which, while interesting, certainly didn’t endear me to the idea of eating it.

  6. says

    Poor, Greg. You should have had a nice bottle of beer or even hard cider to wash away what sounds like a pretty ‘sour’ fish taste. I can honestly say that I’m not even vaguely tempted to give this dish a try in the future.

      • says

        LOL … no. Thank you for your generous offer though. :)

        I AM looking for recipes to use up the strips of chicken breast or rib eye steak currently in my freezer. Nothing really excites me although I’ve done quite a bit of net surfing looking for ideas that are out of the ordinary.

  7. says

    WOW!! That is truly gross!
    …like really really really bad! I can’t imagine putting something that smelled that bad in my mouth, let alone being the entrepreneur that decided canning it could be profitable.
    Such a great story… but your mad!!

    • says

      Haha, I’m not quite sure of the history behind this stuff but people genuinely do eat it. It’s not even a question of “let’s eat this as a joke”. No, they actually enjoy and appreciate it :D

  8. says

    Well, what can I say?! Thanks for the laugh, I was giggling the entire length of the post. You are quite brave. Now, since I don’t even like fresh fish that much, I very much doubt that I will like mouldy, fermented fish in a can. Thanks for the heads up, I will put surstromming on my list of foods to avoid!!

    PS: The skanerost coffee is pretty good considering its Nestle. We haven’t broken into the other one yet. Thanks again, Charles.

  9. says

    Hilarious post Charles!!! :) I can’t imagine any one liking this, but then we all have different tastes just like we’re all different. Well, the Swedes can keep the sour herring. :)

    • says

      No way! Vegemite is awesome… what I wouldn’t do for a jar of that right now. It’s impossible to find here :(. Of course, Marmite is better, but vegemite is a perfectly worthy substitute!

  10. says

    Hi, Charles, I am intrigued by this herring even in spite of your anti-advertisement ;-)
    I must taste it when I go to Sweden (even if I have to spit it out).
    By the way, after reading a blog I added last week fermented squid to my tasting list for next trip to Japan. (I always have a very long one… and am never able to taste all I want).

    • says

      To be honest, as my wife says, it’s not *that* terrible. The taste is so much better than the smell, although it’s still not something I could call “nice”. Just kind of salty, wet and slimy. Hope you will have a chance to try it some day :)

  11. says

    Oh dear god Charles, the look of your face after the tasting really tells the true story, even if I didn’t believe it before I do now FOR SURE!! I’m afraid I too will have to avoid this dish because I almost vomited watching your reaction so I doubt very much I could stomach this on my own.
    I’m going to look for the Anthony Bourdain clip that Betsy commented about, that guy eats anything and everything!
    As for stinky food, I can only recall Limburger Cheese, my dear Dad used to bring it home from the Cheese Boutique and my Mom would combine it with soft butter so that it’s easily spread on bread. Dad loved the stuff but the smell would always send my brother and I screaming from the kitchen. I would like to try it again as an adult, it’s probably not as bad as I recall. The other gross food would certainly have to be andouillette from Lyon, I believe you had described this dish smelling as though someone had left the bathroom door open. I was rather ill that night.

    • says

      Haha, I think I saw a documentary recently about a guy who’d won a nobel prize for research showing that mosquitoes liked the smell of cheese… particularly limburger. He found that if people have “cheesy feet” (eww!) it bears a strong resemblance to the odour of limburger and mosquitoes are more likely to be attracted to them.

  12. says

    I don’t know a lot about Sweden but I do know they eat these herrings. I would have to say that I think you are very brave to try them and I’m quite sure I don’t have your courage. I would be out of the room as soon as someone lifted the lid off the can. Perhaps people in Sweden feel this way about us down in Oz eating vegemite? xx

    • says

      Herrings, pickled herrings, are just delicious, but this I just can’t take!

      Many people do think Vegemite or Marmite is pretty vile… I’d kill for a jar of that now though. Can’t get it here :(

  13. says

    Ha ha ha ha ha!!! This is hilarious! Thank you for trying this food for us as warning – I probably run as fast as I can in case I encounter surstromming. The story of landlord is really funny too.

  14. says

    Oh NO…. revenge of the kippers!!! LOL. My husband enjoys kippers for breakfast (pass the bucket please) and it literally turns the rest of our stomachs. To the point where one day my husband decided to pull an April fools prank on the boys by adding kippers to their oatmeal — I think they can *still* taste the salty herring to this day (GROSS!!! err… with the greatest respect lovely Wife ;-)). I did get quite a kick out of your photos though Charles — heeheeh!

    • says

      Aaah, I LOVE kippers! Especially smoked… and kedgeree too, oh my God! I wonder if one can buy them here… will have to look. It’s been a while since I had it! That’s mean though, making oatmeal with them… would have loved to have seen their faces!

      At least that prank is quite a bit better than what my sister did to me one year – replacing all the sugar in the sugar bowl with salt. My cornflakes and “sugar” for breakfast were not enjoyable! :D

  15. says

    OMG! For someone who could not even manage to swallow pickled dried fish in her life, I doubt I would be in a hurry to go anywhere near a can of rotten fish, no matter how good. But I so appreciate the heads up…lol! I wonder what Helene from Masala Herb would say about this…:D

  16. says

    Charles you have me laughing out loud. Your photos looks similar to when you give your kid an unfamiliar food like gerber peas for the first time. LOL Don’t worry I think Asia might not even have this on the shelves so I won’t able to have access to it. I will take note not to order this on a flight or on a menu when traveling.. Fun Post. Take care, BAM

    • says

      Hi Bam, you’d be hard-pushed to find it I think. It’s so stinky that I don’t think they ever sell it in restaurants. The only way to get it is to get a tin yourself from the supermarket here!

  17. says

    Charles, I will vouch for you anytime as to your bravery. I have to say that looking at the flatbread with all the toppings it doesn’t look half bad but just the description of the smell…eew! It would never get near my lips.

  18. says

    This is the FUNNIEST post ever! Oh my gosh – I had to giggle all the way… It sounds like my Stinky Tofu experience. Now I “can” eat it but oh boy… I felt like I’m eating farm animal poo…I mean just the smell only, but that’s a quite experience to eat something like that. Not actual taste though. I’m still curious about surstromming but I don’t promise to finish it all. =P

    • says

      Haha, glad you had a laugh Nami. There’s a cheese in France called “Petit Gaugry”. It’s well known because it’s aged in Burgundy Wine or something, and it smells… and TASTES like cow manure or something, but this is the weird thing: my wife and I both agreed it tasted like cow poop, but “in a good way”, and now we really miss this cheese, LOL!

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