Surströmming: The Zombie of the Sea
Words and Photography by Kim Eriksson
It’s that time of year in Sweden, when suddenly you find yourself confronted with the unmistakably dense smell of decay about town. Every year this foul scent results in a multitude of neighbours alerting the authorities with their worries about gas leakages. The majority of Swedes, however, recognise the odour as the pungent Swedish delicacy called Surströmming (“soured” or “fermented” herring).
Surströmming has been available in Sweden since the early 16th century, but as of today it is mainly appreciated in the northern parts of the country, where 1.5 million lbs of the fish is produced each year. The method of manufacturing is still regarded as a genuine craft. In brief, it is achieved by putting freshly caught herring in barrels to sit for a couple of days with enough salt to keep the bacteria away. Then, the fish is cleaned and transferred into new barrels with slightly less brine; the amount of salt is crucial to regulate the perfect balance of fermentation. The barrels remain at room temperature for up to ten weeks until the fish is packaged manually into tin cans, often with decorative motifs. The fermentation, however, continues within the container. The cans therefore often bulge from the process just in time for the annual sale, which starts on the third Thursday in August.
A quick search for “surströmming” on YouTube shows that its reputation has managed to spread outside Scandinavia. Unsuspecting people from around the world are now bravely trying to gobble down the Swedish delicacy, like it’s a hot chili contest, without throwing up. I used to suspect that eating surströmming and liking it at the same time was, even in Sweden, for people who had grown up around it and slowly learned to appreciate it. Nevertheless I have now tried it twice, much to the pleasure of my grandfather, who grew up in surströmming’s heartland. The first time occurred when I had a small piece as a curious kid, and promptly promised myself never to be so stupid again. A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to try it again. This time, I was invited to a crayfish party (another Swedish tradition), and surströmming was planned as an appetizer. This time I ate it like you’re supposed to: spread butter on soft or hard flatbread; on with the rotten fish together with boiled almond potatoes, a lot of diced onions, and a dollop of sour cream; then wrap everything and eat it like a burrito.
The taste was intense, but nothing like what I had feared, the salty spiciness of the fish was well balanced with the sweetness of the potatoes and onions. The obligatory ingestion of schnapps did help of course, but overall it was a surprising taste experiment that I’ll definitely try more frequently from now on. I can honestly recommend it to anyone else interested in food. This seems especially relevant today, when the taste for sour foods, from sourdough and sauerkraut to Kombucha tea and everything pickled never seems to end. Could surströmming be next in line to be embraced by foodies and enthusiasts of artisanal sour products everywhere?