Surströmming: a hardcore version of maatjes!

Finally we got round to opening the ‘bulging’ can of surströmming: (the sirenes in the background indicate that emergency medical services were available in case one of us fainted while opening the can)

A Swedish speciality, which can best be translated to “soured herring” – more correctly would be rotten herring. It is a dish with long history linking back to the days when food was kept by salting, drying or putting in brine. For reasons not entirely clear, Swedish – or at least Nordic –sailors discovered that herring could be kept by using less salt of the expensive salt. The fish would start to rot, but in a controlled process. So the surströmning is basically rotten but not decomposed fish. In fact it remains quite firm and in shape, but has a quite impressive putrid smell – by some identified as the strongest putrid smell from any food, including rotten Asian food items.

Despite herring being in general a popular food in the Nordic area, it is only in Sweden surströmning is still consumed. The herring is caught in spring time, when it is in prime condition and just about to spawn. The herring is then fermented in barrels for one to two months, then tinned where the fermentation continues. Half a year to a year later, gases have built up sufficiently for the once cylindrical tins to bulge into a more rounded shape. These unusual containers of surströmming can be found in supermarkets all over Sweden at the right time of year. The bacteria in the can produce carbon dioxide and a number of compounds that account for the unique odour: pungent (propionic acid), rotten-egg (hydrogen sulfide), rancid-butter (butyric acid), and vinegary (acetic acid).

We opened one tin following instructions from Swedish friends: outside and in a bucket of water. As you can see in the video the tin immediately sends out bubbles and before long you were experience what can only be described as a stench in the truest sense of the word. After having opened the tin we kept the fish under water before serving them.

The traditional way of serving them is as a kind of open sandwich. You are supposed to put them on a special, crispy thin bread. You serve them with potatoes – in particular the almond potatoe, which is a speciality of the northern parts of Sweden. It is apparently not suitable for growing further south.

Apart from these basic ingredients there is some disagreement on what more to add. In some places you add chopped onions and sour cream – making it a bit like a löjrom. In other places you apparently add more ingredients such as dill, tomatoes etc.

I am sure the amount of surströmming on our sandwich would make a hard-core surströmming lover laugh. However, I can subscribe to the other view observed by a foodie: When eating surströmming the art is to not feel nauseous before you take the first bite. So to avoid that feeling, we limited the amount of rotten herring on our sandwich.

When that is said I have to say it was a quite pleasant experience for a fish lover. There is a strong, spicy taste of something fishy and it adds quite a flavour to the potatoes, the sourcream and the crispy bread. I am sure lovers of hot Asian food – which I am not – would also appreciate the taste, since it is actually quite spicy. Of course it was excellent with the Danish ice cold Snaps I drank with it.

Will I eat it again? Don’t think so!

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