There is a good possibility that when Phoebe Buffet asked the question “Smelly cat, smelly cat, what are they feeding you?” in the hit sitcom Friends, the answer was Surströmming.
What Durian is to South East Asia, Surströmming is to North Sweden, and while it is illegal to carry the former through public transportation in places like Singapore, Surströmming is available in many food stores across Sweden.
A local delicacy, this regional speciality is considered the smelliest food in the world. Surströmming is a Baltic Sea herring that is fermented for months before being tinned and sold in markets. With a shelf life of up to a year, the aroma released upon opening the tin has been referred by many as that of old eggs, seafood, vinegar, aged cheese, and a whole lot of other foul smells all rolled into one. Often compared with the Japanese Kusaya, a salted dry-fish fermented for an extended period, the scent of the Surströmming is a lot more pungent and putrid.
The process of fermenting fish in such a manner started centuries ago in Europe, especially in countries with colder climates. Preservation of fish was essential as it allowed for availability during the non-fishing seasons. Now, the making of Surströmming is quite a technical method involving carefully followed steps to ascertain the best flavours.
How Surströmming is made?
Surströmming starts with catching the Baltic herring just before they spawn, usually in April and May. Initially, their blood is drawn out by putting them in a robust brine solution. With the head removed and the body gutted, primary fermentation begins as the fish find themselves in barrels full of a weaker brine solution. Sometimes pre-cut fillets are prepared to make eating the fish easier for the consumers. The barrels are temperature controlled so that the enzymes in the solution can work their magic. This is the most significant element of the entire process and can often lead to a difference in quality if not done correctly.
A more exciting aspect of Surströmming is that the fermenting of the fish continues even after it is canned. Due to this extended process, the tin eventually starts to bulge. This is one of the controversial reasons why Surströmming isn’t allowed on some airlines as they apparently have an exploding can capability which is a health and safety issue. The locals though believe that while the can does swell-up the chance of it exploding is a myth.
When it comes to eating Surströmming, there are a few different ways to go about it. Opening it is an adventure in itself. The bulge of the can make the mind wonder about the content, the fizzing sound when the can-opener first makes a dent, and that whiff of air that hits the nostrils with full force, surprising unassuming participants instantly with a vigourously rotten smell.
Most people who try Surströmming for the first time open the tin and fork out the fish. However, that is not the traditional way of eating this delicacy. Locals will tell that the best method is to chop it up and eat it with a piece of Tunnbröd, a thin crispy bread that adds natural texture to the slimier Surströmming. Ingredients such as potatoes, red onions, sour cream, herbs, and butter are then added on top to complete the sandwich. Not only does this repress the smell, but also brings out the flavour of the Surströmming making it a lot more enjoyable.
Surströmming means “sour herring” in Swedish, and while there are challenges and videos of people trying to eat the fish from across the world, the Swedes have always taken these hilarious and extreme reactions with a pinch of salt, very much like the one added to the fish in order to save it from getting rotten. The locals appreciate sharing their bizarre food and welcome visitors who want to eat Surströmming the right way and endure its nuances. As for the taste, those who have braved eating it will agree that it is a lot subtler than what the smell will have you believe.
Surströmmingsmuseet, situated in the rural Skeppsmaln region, is proof that the Swedes are proud of their fishing culture as this museum dedicated to Surströmming aims to educated visitors about the history of the process, their model of surplus production in the country, and life at sea in general.
As an essential part of Sweden’s culinary heritage, the “Surströmming premier” is celebrated on the last Thursday of August. It is a time for the locals to indulge in this culinary delight by opening the latest batch of cans. The atmosphere is that of a party and for many it is a good enough reason to immerse themselves in this annual activity. Imagine being in an area where multiple cans of Surströmming are getting opened at the same time. For a first-timer, it is advisable to have a strong stomach and nose blocks.
Even with its limited appeal, the fish hasn’t been without its fair share of troubles. The production of Surströmming took a hit a while back when the EU disallowed certain types of herrings from being fermented due to high levels of dioxin, much to the disappointment of the Swedes. However, smaller sized herrings are still used, helping support this tradition.
Just like several other culturally sensitive issues across the world, one must remember that Surströmming is a special dish for Sweden. From being respectful towards it to appreciating its historical importance, eating Surströmming is a once in a lifetime event not to be missed. And if you like it, then there is always something to look forward to in addition to being among the few people who can claim to enjoy its slightly acidic and salty taste. But if you are planning on taking it home, make sure to go out into the open before eating it unless you want your neighbors coming after you.
Oskars Surströmming is one of the most popular and oldest manufacturers of surströmming in Sweden. Oskars Surströmming started making surströmming in 1955 in a town called Söråker. You could visit: http://www.oskarssurstromming.se/ and read more about them.