Surströmming
Can of Fermented Herring Surströmming is reputed to be the most putrid stinking substance consumed by mankind - note that the can in the photo was opened outdoors, which is where it's most often eaten. A seasonal delicacy in northern Sweden, it's only competitor for stinkiness is said to be Japanese Kusaya. Both are produced by fermenting fish in insufficient salt to properly preserve them. This, in both cases, appears to stem from ancient times when salt was very expensive.

Baltic herring are first fermented in tubs for one or two months, then put up in cans - but the fermentation continues in the can, causing the cans to swell noticeably. Surströmming is normally eaten on bread along with potatoes and chopped red onions.

Surströmming can be mail ordered from Sweden, but I have not yet done so, so I defer my opinion to a person with direct experience - see below.   Photo by Lapplaender distributed under license Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Germany.

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This product is normally eaten in the outdoors, and in the Autumn. Sales start in late August. The manufacturers recommend a method of handling the stench. They say all partakers (and anyone else who expects to hang around) cluster around the can as it is opened (cover with a cloth - the can is under high pressure). Once it is open, take a deep breath. This is reported to stun the olfactory senses to the point the stench is no longer noticed. The flavor is rather mild.

That said, here we have a first party testimonial from Christian Conrad (published here by permission), now residing in Finland, who has had direct exposure to the product. These comments were first published on UseNet but are now on Google Groups in the (formerly) DejaNews archive. For the non-technical, ^H represents a backspace. Also be sure to read CRCs more recent comments that follow.

Ah well. You asked for it. Repeatedly.

Surströmming is the most noxious substance known to Mankind, luckily known only to a small, isolated and isolationist sub-arctic subset of it so far, but since you ask, I'm in the process of proving the dangers of too well-developed communications systems. Like this "disinformation supertrackway" we're ab^H^Husing now.

You see, I strongly suspect even the knowledge of this wonder of putrefaction will form one of those "meme" brain-virus thingies in your sub-conscious and leave you, Dear Reader, a gibbering psycho, an empty husk of a person, twitching, slobbering, and spreading the contagion ever onwards through your maniacal rantings.

Then again, maybe that wouldn't make such a big difference at all. And since you, Malka, asked so nicely and persistently, and I'm such a swell guy I just can't say no, prepare to be ass^H^H^Henlightened.

Surströmming is fish too, just like lutfisk. It is, or rather was when it was alive, an ordinary strömming, which is a kind of small herring, too small to be a sill. I'm not sure, though, whether it is a separate species / variant /race, or just too young to be fully grown. As it even has scales (and many other traits) to distinguish it from the really much less harmful common or garden variety shrimp, it would AFAIK be perfectly kosher. Now if there ever was a motive of protecting the public health behind the formulation of the kashrut rules, it must be stated openly: They've failed sadly, in this case.

And like lutfisk, surströmming gets its name from the method of preservation and preparation (and preparation for preservation etc, of course). In direct opposite to its caustic cousin, though, the dreaded surströmming is acidic -- no, Malka, not "C/Hassidic"!. Acidic as in acid, LSD, HappyHappyJoyJo -- Oops, I mean, acidic as in acid, sourness, vinegar and lemon juice and so forth.

The first bit, "sur", means "sour" in Swedish. Like other sour foods, notably sauerkraut (now there's a delicacy!) it is sealed up airtight for a rather long while, and the microbes do their thing. Some of you might think that this is in effect rotten herring, but the Swedes (some of them) claim that it's not. I guess one would have to say they are right, technically. Otherwise they'd counter-claim that really good fermented stuff is bad: Sauerkraut is "rotten cabbage", beer is "rotten barley water", wine is "rotten grape juice", etc...

Surströmming is mainly enjoyed in the northern parts of Sweden, but unfortunately for me, they had a pretty generous definition of "north" where I grew up in the middle of Sweden. It is a seasonal "delicacy", unless the law's been changed recently. As for crayfish, which could only be sold after the second thursday in August, this was set free some years ago, since the market consisted mainly of frozen American and Turkish products anyway. (Catching is still restricted AFAIK.) But I haven't heard of the official sale start for surströmming being rescinded, so for all I know it's still the third Friday in August. Possibly stipulated so no vendor would be tempted to put not-yet-ready merchandise up for sale just to beat the competition. The fish in question is last year's catch, of course. Takes time to ripen...

You think there seem to be a lot of excuses for partying in August? Yes, as the bright but oh-so-short summer comes to an end, the Swedes go into ever more of a party frenzy, and the atmosphere turns more or less orgiastic. It's probably an effect of their being at heart a rural people, with massive-scale urbanization having taken place only in the last couple of generations or so. And when they sit in their summer cabins, watching the verdant lushness wilt, I think they are all, men and women alike, acutely reminded of that biological clock that, albeit on a somewhat longer time-scale, is commonly associated with women only.

The "correct" way to enjoy this ultimate dethronization of rotten eggs (commonly believed to be the most potent source of H2S. Ha! What a misconception!), is like most of traditional Swedish "haute cuisine": with boiled potatoes, and no sauce. Except of course, to you Merkins, the "sauce" could mean another liquid, which indeed does flow freely: Alcohol, clear distilled spirits, AKA schnapps (Sw. "snaps") or vodka. The favorite make is "skogsstjaernan", "Forest Star", a little flower that grows mainly in remote and peaceful parts of Swedish forests. But you won't find that in any of the state monopoly liquor stores. It's a code - or nickname, it's just that in Swedish, the light of the moon has nothing to do with it...

The menu does of course have some items besides surströmming and potatoes. There's the thin bread of northern Sweden, preferably in both of its (totally taste-free) varieties, soft (Swedish chapatti) and crunchy (edible Plexi-glass). The potatoes should, for purists anyway, be of the "almond potato" kind. This is a kind of small and oblong potato, that actually does have an aroma (and shape) that is slightly reminiscent of almonds. The surströmming is most often eaten on bread, or even wrapped in it if it's the soft kind, with sliced potatoes, chopped red onions, and sour cream.

I tried to eat a bite once, at age 13 or so, and I just couldn't. I think my dear little mother summed it up best, at the same occasion:

"It tastes just like shit!"

When confronted with the logical implications of this statement (Wouldn't you have, at 13?), she did of course amend it to be "Tastes just like one would assume from the smell that shit does.", but that just doesn't have the same ring to it, now does it?!?

I have actually had pieces in my mouth later, for a part of my "initiation" at university was like apple-bobbing, only we were supposed to catch pieces of surströmming out of a basin full of flour. The main purpose was of course to get us all silly-looking and full of flour. Points were awarded for how many pieces you found, and bonus points for actually swallowing them. Needless to say, I didn't even try for the latter, but almost vomited anyway.

Now depending on vintage, KJ's armory could actually be about to self-destruct. If you don't eat a can of surströmming the year after it's made, it just goes on fermenting away, and becomes aneven worse stink-bomb (inconceivable as that may seem...). These are normal, or perhaps even on the sturdy side of normal, tin cans. But mere metal cannot withstand the forces at play here. Old surströmming cans swell. At first, the top and bottom just bulge slightly, but after a few years the enormous pressure that builds up in there forces the whole vessel into spherical shape. That is, blows the can up like a ball! (Not kidding.)

I have no idea where most of these cans go, unless Sweden exports them to some country with a facility for dismantling nuclear weapons. But some few get carelessly thrown away in the forest etc, and these can be near-mortal traps for curious youngsters who find them. Happened to a friend of mine when I was little. "Wow, what's this?!? Dad, can I borrow hammer and chisel?". Being naturally cautious I stood well back, which is how I happened to survive the resulting explosion with only mental scars. Not something I recommend.

    © Christian R. Conrad - sole owner of all opinions (except quotes) expressed above.

And now Christian's recent comments

Perhaps a footnote needs to be added: You know how people's tastes change, as they get older...? Yup -- I had some surströmming, a few years ago (Summer of '07, IIRC). Perhaps it was the onions and sourcream and potatoes and things that helped, and of course the schnapps probably didn't hurt either, and it certainly wasn't the greatest thing I've ever eaten... (and CERTAINLY not the greatest thing I've ever SMELLED!) But... I had me some, and it wasn't actually all that bad.

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