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Swedish Surströmming – How to Eat and Survive the Scandinavian Rotten Fish
Fancy some fermented herring or rotten fish?
If you ever find yourself invited to a Swedish party and get faced with the prospect of eating something the Swedes call ‘Surströmming’, I strongly recommend you walk away. Unless of course, you want to experience the true Swedish food culture and try what a scientific study has shown is the most putrid smelling food ever served in the world. If that’s the sort of experience you’re after, then read on and learn more about the mother of all herring – the Swedish Surströmming (fermented herring)
What is Surströmming?
Surströmming is a northern Swedish dish consisting of fermented Baltic herring. The Swedes themselves usually describe it as ‘rotten fish’, and canned Surströmming can be bought in any major supermarket. There is a very good reason this fermented herring is only ever served outdoors – once opened, the odour of the contents of the rotten fish is incredibly strong and completely overwhelming. The Surströmming smell has been described as pungent (propionic acid), vinegary (acetic acid), rancid-butter (butyric acid), and rotten-egg (hydrogen sulfide). Getting hungry yet?
How did the Swedes come up with Surströmming?
One popular explanation is that the Swedes invented Surströmming by accident. In the 16th century, Swedish sailors didn’t have enough salt to keep their herring fresh and eventually the fish started to rot. These sailors came across some Finnish islanders and somehow managed to sell the the fish to them. One can only imagine how annoyed the Finns must have been when they discovered the fish was rotten – and more importantly how hungry they must have been to actually try to eat it. The story goes that when the sailors came back a year later the Finns asked for more rotten fish and the Swedes then decided to try the delicacy for themselves. The rest is as they say – history.
How is Surströmming made nowadays?
The Baltic Herring is caught in springtime and then fermented in barrels for about two months. They then get tinned and the fermentation process continues. After six months or so, the tins are nicely rounded and bulging from the gases produced by the Haloanaerobium bacteria in the can and the rotten fish is ready to be eaten. The cans are shipped to the supermarkets and eager Swedes enjoy them throughout the month of August.
This guy tries surströmming for the first time
How to eat Swedish surströmming
Whatever you do – never, ever try and open a can of Surströmming indoors. The Swedes have several theories of how you might open a tin without releasing the odour, the most popular idea suggest that you should open it under water. The truth is – the rotten herring will stink however you open the can so you might as well do it at the table.
Swedes traditionally enjoy Surströmming with a thin type of bread called tunnbröd, which translates as ‘thin bread’. The custom in The High Coast area, where the Surströmming tradition originates from, is to eat the fish in a "surströmmingsklämma", a sort of fish sandwich made from two pieces of buttered tunnbröd with mashed potatoes or sliced potatoes and sliced fish in between. Yummy! In other parts of the country, the rotten fish is served with diced onion, sour cream, chives and chopped dill.
Finish your meal with a snaps – and take a deep breath and savor your experience. You’ve just survived your first bite of rotten Swedish herring!