As summer rolls around in Sweden, travellers might smell something peculiar wafting in the air alongside the aroma of barbequing meat. This is the time of year when Swedes crack open tins of fermented Baltic herring called surströmming (sour herring) – a stinky culinary tradition that dates back several centuries and is often likened to the smell of eggs rotting in open sewage drains. Originating from the Höga Kusten region (the High Coast) and mostly eaten in northern Sweden and Swedish Lapland, surströmming is often eaten outdoors at garden or balcony parties -- because like skunk spray, its stench will linger on for days.
There are many theories as to how surströmming became part of Sweden’s culinary culture. The most colourful story traces its roots back to Swedish sailors in the 16th century. The sailors were running low on salt -- which was commonly used to preserve food -- and their barrels of herring began to go bad. They sold the rotten fish to some locals at a Finnish port, but a year later, when the sailors returned, the Finns requested more rotten herring because they had enjoyed it so much. This prompted the Swedish sailors to try it themselves and produce more of the fish.
Prime surströmming is made by catching herring when they are spawning in the spring and storing them in barrels for about two months. The partially fermented herring are then transferred into tin cans to continue the fermentation process. Anywhere between six months to a year later, when the cans start to bulge due to the build-up of gases from the fermentation process, they are shipped to stores all over Sweden for sale.
Popular brands include Röda Ulven and Kallax, both of which have been producing surströmming since the 1940s, as well as Oskars, which was founded in 1954.
Surströmming can be purchased in most supermarkets around Sweden, though buying one as a souvenir can be tricky since it is banned on several major airlines due to the highly pressurized cans.
Once opened, the fermented whole herring are deboned, their swollen pink innards pulled out and their putrid flesh cut into small slivers. Once you can get past its foul odour, you will be met with a salty, fishy taste that is not quite as bad as it smells. The slivers of fish are loaded onto tunnbröd, lightly buttered crispy thin bread and then topped with yellow onions, dill, mandelpotatis (sliced boiled almond potatoes) and a fatty fermented milk similar to sour cream called gräddfil. These condiments help tone down the fish’s strong taste and make it more palatable.
Cold milk is usually consumed alongside surströmming, probably because its mild taste balances the fish’s strong salty taste. At parties, pilsner beers, schnapps, vodka and aquavit – a 40% distilled alcoholic beverage made from potatoes or grain -- are often served too.
A special tribute
A museum dedicated to this stinky fish -- Fiskevistet surströmmingsmuseet – is located 30km north of the town of Örnsköldsvik along Sweden’s High Coast in the small fishing village of Skeppsmaln.
The museum has a permanent exhibition where visitors can learn more about the history and preparation of the fish, get a whiff of the smell from its “sniffing box”, learn how herring communicate with each other, admire a display of various antique cans of the fish, and listen to some Swedish drinking songs that are often sung while consuming surströmming.