Eaten only by certain Swedes
living north of Gävle
(180 km north of Stockholm), surströmming is a delicacy
, a cult
, a terror
, a feat of endurance
. It seems everyone has heard of lutefisk
, but not as many know of surströmming (at least in America). This is strange to me, because the worst thing about lutefisk is the preparation, but the taste is fairly mellow. On the other hand, surströmming, literally "sour herring," is unbelievably offensive
. The Lapplanders
(the only people who eat it) hold contests--who can eat the most of these scrumptious fish in one sitting. Someone who can eat 20 or 30 of the 3-5 inch-long fish is doing well, until they eat them and become sick. Surströmming is to Sweden what haggis
is to Scotland
, what durian
is to Thailand
. Surströmming is to fish "what limburger
is to cheese
and what pornography
is to literature
What is surströmming? Raw herring, straight from the northern part of the Baltic sea, dropped raw into cans of water. The can is sealed and left to "ripen" for several months, preferably in the sun. The fish is not ready until the can is bulging due to the chemical process which takes place, namely fermenting.
It is my personal opinion that surströmming stinks worse than durian melon. Really. The fish smells so bad you can smell it through the sealed metal can. Some grocery stores seal the cans in ziplock bags to contain the odor. The Swedes all say everyone on the block, in the neighborhood, knows when someone opens a can of surströmming.
I can't quite understand why anyone ate the dang stuff in the first place. The most frequent story I've heard is during a war or famine or something, there were barrels of herring which had accidently been left in barrels on the deck in the sun. The people were very hungry--they must have been desperate--so they tried to eat the fish, and some of them grew to like it. Another explanation is that fermenting is cheaper than preserving it in brine, but I somehow doubt a product like surströmming was an intentional dish.
Surströmming is traditionally eaten with potatoes, onions and Swedish bread, washed down liberally with: 1-beer and aquavit, or 2-beer and vodka, or 3-milk. If you wrap the fish and potatoes in the bread and eat, it helps to mellow the flavor of the fish.
Hjalmar and I had heard all about this "surströmming" before going to Sweden, and Hjalmar, intrepid gourmand, decided he wanted to "prova" (try) some. We were in Gävle, which is about as far south as anyone will eat the stuff, and our hosts at first thought we were joking. "You really want to try it?" at this point, their faces lit up with a mixture of national pride, surprise, and the expectation of a good show or joke. "Are you sure?" Hjalmar answered in the affirmative, so they took us down to the grocery store and bought a red and yellow can of surströmming.
When they opened the can, a terrible, terrible, indescribable smell came forth--the smell of something horribly, horribly rotten and fermented. When I caught my first whiff, I backed up quickly, out of the kitchen. Hjalmar had more courage (or something) and stayed closer to watch the fish being rinsed. Rinsing all of the rotten water down the drain helped with the stench, because then all we had left was rotten fish. Our kind host prepared the fish for us (i.e. removed the head and middle guts and bones), and had boiled potatoes for us to eat it with. I heard afterward that we should have had the bread, too, but we didn't know at the time.
Hjalmar tried it first, a rotten piece of stinking fish on potato. He chewed thoughtfully and kind of gulped it down. My family, who saw this on video afterwards, said he was very polite and trying to not make a face, although he will probably disagree with that because he said it wasn't that bad. Misery loves company, so of course he insisted that I try some too. The piece they gave me had bones in it, so I was trying to get them out but mostly just ended up with very sticky fingers that smelled terribly for the rest of the day. I bit down and was greeted by the strangest, most indescribable taste I've ever experienced. It was sour, salty, rotten, fishy, and something else. I think we described it as "almost good." It wasn't so bad eating it; the rotten taste mostly showed up as a really bad taste left in your mouth after. For first-timers, I highly highly recommend you have something nearby to drink-anything. It was edible; neither of us gagged, but I wasn't really eager to eat any more. The worst thing about it was the lingering after-taste (which comes to haunt you for several hours after eating). I've been told it grows on you and you can really start to like it. Personally I think it's just some kind of perverted pride in being able to eat the stuff without making a face.
Our host said that it was much better fresh, although how one has "fresh" fermented fish is beyond me. It was a very interesting experience, and I would recommend it to anyone in Sweden who has the chance. You'll never have anything remotely like it anywhere else.