Surströmming: trying Sweden’s stinkiest food

Some say it smells like a dead body. Others liken it to a dirty nappy. Or a dog bin that hasn’t been emptied for months. However you describe it, the Swedish delicacy known as surströmming (fermented herring) is pretty much the world’s stinkiest food.

Surströmming, fermented herring from Sweden
The world’s smelliest food

I know this really isn’t selling it, but it is a well-known local delicacy and (some) Swedes will assure you it tastes much better than it smells. Curious? This guide will show you where to sample surströmming, and how to eat it (and no, we don’t mean with a peg on your nose!). Let the feast begin!

What is surströmming?

First things first. What is this smelly food stuff that Swedes go mad for? Well, it’s lightly salted Baltic herring that has been fermented then canned. A speciality of northern Sweden, its name aptly translates as ‘sour herring’.

Surströmming is a speciality of northern Sweden
A speciality of northern Sweden / Jukka (CC)

How is surströmming made?

The herrings are caught in Baltic Sea in May, just before they spawn. They are then brined in a strong salt solution for 20 hours to draw out the blood. After being beheaded and gutted they sit in a weaker salt solution for several weeks.

Canning begins at the beginning of July, with the fish continuing to ferment in the cans, which causes the tins to start bulging. The surströmming is then left to ferment for at least six months.

Be warned, the more the can bulges, the longer the fish has been fermented – and so the stronger the smell, when you finally open it. There’s a reason most people open the cans outdoors.

What does it smell like?

A tin of surströmming, Sweden
Pic: Prankster (CC)

There’s no denying that surströmming smells pretty evil, and the pungent odour hits you with some force as soon as you open the can. If you spill any of the – erm, juice – the smell can hang around for days, pervading everything in its proximity.

But, there are ways to lessen its impact.  Some Swedes recommend opening the can under water to reduce the smell.

Others suggest taking a deep sniff as soon as the can is open to desensitise your nostrils – nothing smells as bad after the initial blast. And most people recommend wearing gloves when you take the fish out of the can. This stuff takes fishy fingers to a new level.

What everyone agrees on, however, is that you should always open the can outside. If you attempt to open it indoors, the smell will invade your house, giving it a fishy odour that is almost impossible to get rid of.

What does surströmming taste like?

Well, the Swedes are right – it really doesn’t taste as bad as it smells. Unsurprisingly, it has a fishy flavour, but with the sharp tang of a good blue cheese.

It’s certainly is an acquired taste, but most Swedes love it – and you may well come to enjoy it as well.

How is surströmming normally served?

Surströmmming (fermented herring from Sweden) might just be the world's smelliest food.
It doesn’t look so bad when properly prepared, does it? / Mr Thinktank (CC)

Surströmming is usually beautifully presented – it definitely looks better than it smells. Delicate slices of the herring are arranged on top of thin slices of tunnbröd (Swedish crispbread) or flatbread.

They are then topped with finely chopped white (or red) onion, sour cream, boiled potatoes and fresh dill. And, of course, it’s almost always washed down with several shots of snaps. (Even if you don’t like strong booze, you might grateful that there’s a strong palette cleanser close by!)

Can surströmming make you sick? And is it safe to eat?

Well, the fish is fermented, not rotting, and has been preserved according to traditional methods used by communities around the world for thousands of years.

The Swedish National Food Administration has tested it by adding various food-poisoning bacterias, and discovered that the high salinity of the brine prevents any bacteria growing.

So yes, micro-biologically it’s safe to eat – as long as the tin is intact.

The can must be kept in the fridge, however, as when it gets warm the enzymes start to break down the fish and turn it into a grey disgusting-looking mush.

In fact, the biggest surströmming-related danger comes not from eating it but from the pressurised cans. So much so that some airlines refuse to carry them.

Okay, I’m ready: where can I try surströmming?

surströmmingsskiva, Sweden
The best way to try it is at a surströmmingsskiva / Erik Forsberg (CC)

Well, you can order a tin online (try Amazon or surstromming.com) or buy it from a large supermarket. But that’s sort of missing the point. The best way to sample it is to get yourself invited to a surströmmingsskiva (or fermented herring party).

The traditional opening of the surströmming takes place on the third Thursday in August, when Swedes gather together to crack open their smelly cans, drink some snaps and have a sing-song.

True devotees may even want to go to the annual Surströmmingsskiva Festival in Alfta in northern Sweden. The festival normally takes place in mid-August, with tickets costing around 300 SEK each.

What is the ‘Surströmming Challenge’?

Well, you only have to type this into Youtube to see videos of uninitiated people retching, being sick and looking very green while opening a can of surströmming.

Some even try to eat the fish whole straight from the can, often with a rather bemused Swede looking on.

We certainly don’t recommend that you try eating the entire can. But, prepare it as the Swedes do, eat it with friends, wash it down with some snaps and you may even find that you enjoy it!

See also:
Swedish souvenirs worth buying
Surviving Sweden’s alcohol monopoly

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