Being a newbie to Stockholm, I am always eager to experience and learn the cultural aspects such as the food, language and traditions. When I mentioned I was going to try surströmming, many Stockholmers I know simply asked ‘why?’, as many of them hadn’t even tried it themselves! I definitely got some mixed responses to say the least, one being as harsh as ‘don’t do it!’
The infamous Swedish dish called ‘surströmming’, also known as Scandinavian rotten fish, is fermented Baltic herring that is eaten today purely as a novelty, but that wasn’t always the case. Dating back to the 1600’s surströmming was originally eaten during times of famine when food was sparse and the only way to preserve herring was to brine it in barrels for up to two months and then pack it in tins where it fermented for several more months. From this, a gut wrenching culinary tradition was formed in Sweden and this pungent fish has been available to buy in most supermarkets since the 1800’s.
There is an abundance of information out there about surströmming and for the most part it seems to get a pretty bad rap. Back in 2006, Stockholm International airport banned sales of the canned fish, in fear of them exploding and releasing their potent smell! YouTube videos show people reacting to the opening of cans, numerous travel blogs by tourists who have visited Sweden describe it in horror, and the ever popular chef Jamie Oliver covers surströmming on his programme ‘Jamie does Stockholm’, where he is invited to a ‘herring party’ by the head of the Fermented Herring Academy!
Rule number one: Always open a can of surströmming outside! The cans look like they are bulging with the pressure inside! I almost expected some sort of mini explosion as it was being opened! Once opened, the smell can only be described as a combination of rotten eggs and stink bomb! But I have to say, after seeing so many reactions online; it actually wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be! Yes, at first it really hit me, but then it was bearable.
Rule number two: Always use tongs or a fork to pick up the herring! This prevents the smell lingering on your fingers for days I expect, and I gladly took this advice!
Rule number three: Create the ‘Klämma’. For this the herring needs to be de-boned. There are two types of flat bread, one hard and one soft, known as ‘tunnbröd’. I opted for the soft kind, spread some margarine on it, added some chopped onions, tomatoes, boiled sliced potatoes, sour cream (gräddfil), just a little of the herring in small pieces, and wrapped the bread around, much like a Mexican burrito.
I took a bite, and to be honest, it didn’t taste so bad! The fish was very salty, the sour cream definitely neutralized the taste, and although I admit, it won’t be something I will crave anytime soon; the ingredients all went well together! The meal was accompanied by shot glasses of Schnapps and some light beer.
I would definitely encourage people to try it, and yes like Marmite, you will either love it or hate it. But you won’t know until you give it a go, and it was such a pleasure to be amongst people who seemed to enjoy this much talked about dish!