• Sweden's news in English

Rotten fish? It's a delicacy

The Local · 25 Aug 2010, 11:51

Published: 25 Aug 2010 11:51 GMT+02:00

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

Surstömming is a Swedish oddity. Its aroma - or more accurately, odour - is so pungent that it is banned from many Swedish apartment blocks, yet it is considered such an important cultural phenomenon that a society has been established dedicated to protecting its future.

Surstömming is a very special dish from northern Sweden and roughly translates into "sour herring." It's often described in English as rotten herring, although it is actually fermented. The fish was first used by Swedish troops in the 17th and 18th century, when they needed non-perishable food that would last for long marches.

The Baltic fish is caught in the May and June, fermented for one to two months, then tinned. Inside the tin, the fermentation process continues. After 6 months to a year, the fish releases a variety of gases that make the can bulge in weird and bizarre ways.

For many, surströmming is known as one of the most offensive delicacies in the world, rivaling other objectionable treats like southeast Asia's durian fruit or Norway's lutefisk. The foul odour comes from a cocktail of different bacteria that produce carbon dioxide and numerous other compounds. These conspire to create a smell similar to rotten eggs mixed with rancid butter and vinegar. A website dedicated to odd foodstuffs describes the delicacy as "the foulest-smelling food you can ever imagine."

Late August is the traditional period for Swedes to eat surströmming. Ruben Madsen, the President of the Surströmming Academy, explains that the classic way to serve the fish is on thin, crisp bread, with 6 slices of potatoes, each topped with a small piece of surstömming, red onions, sour cream, dill, and tomatoes. Older generations say that milk, snaps, and Wisby Weiss beer is the best way to wash the taste down while the younger ones claim that a dry rose or a dark rum is what truly complements the fish.

While it is generally recommended to eat the fish outside, Madsen claims you can eat it inside too. However, he suggests, “if you live in a big apartment building, put up a sign saying that you are having a surströmming party, just so the neighbors know that it’s not a gas leak or anything.” He adds that cooler temperatures also help to curb the smell, so in order to limit intensity of the odor it is best to open the fish in cold water or in the freezer.

In 2006, several major airlines including Air France, KLM, and British Airways, banned Surstömming from their planes, claiming that the swollen cans are potentially explosive. Swedish producers rebutted by calling the airlines “culturally illiterate,” arguing that it is solely a myth that tins are dangerous. Madsen said the claims were outrageous.

"It is a family meal, how could that possibly be a terrorist weapon? Can you believe something so crazy? I find it humorous they think that a meal could explode"

Story continues below…

Unfortunately, he still doesn’t think that Arlanda will start selling the fish again anytime soon.

While not a terrorist weapon, surströmming is still a force to be reckoned with. According to urban legend, school children have been opening tins of the pungent fish to get out of class for decades. Madsen confirms the myth, saying that stink bombs disrupt around 25 schools a year.

The Local (news@thelocal.se)

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

Your comments about this article

15:10 August 25, 2010 by Z-man
I quite like surströmming! :-9

It's like eating fish that has been spiced right down to the deepest fibres. The trick is to where gloves and open the can under water. Beginners should try the mild, boneless versions, and roll it up in a bread roll with lots of mashed potatoes and veggies.

Gave up on snus after trying it about 25 times and almost puking. Tried all kinds of tricks but it hasn't worked out for me.

Guess I'm only halfway to becoming a Norrlänning :-)
15:31 August 25, 2010 by flintis
!!Smells like a gas leak!!

Something wrong with the nose of the writer, it smells exactly as one would imagine a rotten fish would smell & it's nothing like gas. Although it's taste is something to be desired.
15:55 August 25, 2010 by Z-man
geeze ... I meant "wear gloves" ... blame it on the lack of sleep and the bad cold I'm having!
17:25 August 25, 2010 by Michael Whitfield
Would feeding Surstromming to cats be considered animal cruelty?
23:16 August 25, 2010 by dizzymoe33
Gee wiz I thought the stinky head cheese from Germany was bad enough even though my mother swears it is really good once you get past the smell. Yuck!!!
16:03 August 26, 2010 by janswed
on my last visit to my family from canada, my family lives in umea. we introduced sur stromming to a canadian friend of mine she actually liked it, it made me love her even more even thougt i began to wonder about her tastebuds . with the proper accrutrement as a backup it can be quite tasty like lots of vodka!
21:01 August 26, 2010 by rohermoker
My grand parents would smuggle it back to the US when any one visited there. It was a special treat wwhen they would have the Strumming Party. Lots of old Swedish Army stories, and old town gossip. When my Father and I visited the relitives in Petia last year that was what I requested for dinner nad my father wanted Palt. Now if I could find it here in Minnesota I could die a happy man. (strumming that is, Palt is just to doughy)
16:06 August 27, 2010 by Kamikaze
Emy Gelb's surstrumming article has gone viral. It's on the front page of carnalnation.com, a San Francisco online magazine (next to an article about drag queens on Bourbon Street"
22:33 August 27, 2010 by captbob
In the late 1960s, My father took me on a sailing trip with some Swedish colleagues and a couple of their kids from Stockholm up north on a large wooden sloop belonging to the Swedish Navy. Each day, after sailing all day, at about 10pm with the sun still high in the sky, we would pull into the shelter of an island and the old guys would pull out the kanakebrod and stromming, and make a little ceremony out of choosing who would open the stromming. I believe it involved a couple shots of akavit followed by beer chasers. General hilarity would ensue when (by accident or not), someone would open a can (pointed to spew out over the water) but some of the residue would inevitably land on someone's clothing near the designated opener. My mom ended up throwing out a couple of my dad's shirts because she swore she could still smell stromming after she'd washed them.

Me, I hung out with the blonde daughters of one of crew members on a pile made by the doused jib and foresail, drinking small bottles of Pommac and eating cheese on kankebrod smeared with butter upwind of the festivities. I think I made the wiser choice. Fond memories.
Today's headlines
Hundreds protest Swedish asylum laws
Around 1,000 people protested in Stockholm. Photo: Fredrik Persson/ TT

Hundreds of people on Saturday demonstrated in Stockholm and in many other parts of the country to protest Sweden’s tough new laws on asylum-seekers.

Dylan removes Nobel-mention from website
The American musician has more or less responded to the news with silence. Photo: Per Wahlberg

American singer-song writer Bob Dylan has removed any mention of him being named one of this year’s Nobel Prize laureates on his official website.

Refugee crisis
Asylum requests in Sweden down by 70 percent
Sweden's migration minister Morgan Johansson. Photo: Christine Olsson/TT

Sweden received 70 percent fewer requests for asylum in the period between January and September 2016 than it did during the same time last year, the country’s justice and migration minister Morgan Johansson has revealed.

The unique story of Stockholm's floating libraries
The Stockholm archipelago book boat. Photo: Roger Hill.

Writer Roger Hill details his journeys on the boats that carry books over Stockholm's waterways and to its most remote places.

Refugee crisis
Second Stockholm asylum centre fire in a week
The new incident follows a similar fire in Fagersjö last week (pictured). Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

Police suspect arson in the blaze, as well as a similar incident which occurred last Sunday.

More misery for Ericsson as losses pile up
Ericsson interim CEO Jan Frykhammar presenting its third quarter results. Photo: Claudio Bresciani/TT

The bad news just keeps coming from the Swedish telecoms giant.

Facebook 'sorry' for removing Swedish cancer video
A computer displaying Facebook's landing page. Photo: Christine Olsson/TT

The social media giant had censored a video explaining how women should check for suspicious lumps in their breasts.

Watch this amazing footage of Sweden’s landscapes
A still from the aerial footage of Sweden. Photo: Nate Summer-Cook

The spectacular drone footage captures both Sweden's south and the opposite extreme, thousands of kilometres north.

Sweden could be allowed to keep border controls: EU
Police ID checks at Hyllie station in southern Sweden. Photo: Stig-Åke Jönsson/TT

Sweden could be allowed to keep ID controls on its border with Denmark beyond the current end date of November, following discussions among EU leaders in Brussels last night.

Why women in Sweden will work for free by November
File photo of a woman working in a Swedish office. Photo: Anders Willund/TT

A new study into the gender pay gap suggests Sweden still has some work to do.

Sponsored Article
This is Malmö: Football capital of Sweden
Fury at plans that 'threaten the IB's survival' in Sweden
Sponsored Article
Where is the Swedish music industry heading?
Here's where it could snow in central Sweden this weekend
Analysis & Opinion
Are we just going to let half the country die?
Blog updates

6 October

10 useful hjälpverb (The Swedish Teacher) »

"Hej! I think the so-called “hjalpverb” (auxiliary verbs in English) are a good way to get…" READ »


8 July

Editor’s blog, July 8th (The Local Sweden) »

"Hej readers, It has, as always, been a bizarre, serious and hilarious week in Sweden. You…" READ »

Sponsored Article
7 reasons you should join Sweden's 'a-kassa'
Angry elk chases Swede up a lamp post
Sponsored Article
Why you should 'grab a chair' on Stockholm's tech scene
The Local Voices
'Alienation in Sweden feels better: I find myself a stranger among scores of aliens'
People-watching: October 20th
The Local Voices
A layover at Qatar airport brought this Swedish-Kenyan couple together - now they're heading for marriage
Sponsored Article
Stockholm: creating solutions to global challenges
Swede punches clown that scared his grandmother
Sponsored Article
Swedish for programmers: 'It changed my life'
Fans throw flares and enter pitch in Swedish football riot
Could Swedish blood test solve 'Making a Murderer'?
Sponsored Article
Top 7 tips to help you learn Swedish
Property of the week: Linnéstaden, Gothenburg
Sponsored Article
How to vote absentee from abroad in the US elections
Swedish school to build gender neutral changing room
People-watching: October 14th-16th
Sponsored Article
'There was no future for me in Turkey'
Man in Sweden assaulted by clowns with broken bottle
Sponsored Article
‘Extremism can't be defeated on the battlefield alone’
Nobel Prize 2016: Literature
Sponsored Article
Stockholm: creating solutions to global challenges
Watch the man who discovered Bob Dylan react to his Nobel Prize win
Sponsored Article
Why you should 'grab a chair' on Stockholm's tech scene
Record numbers emigrating from Sweden
Sponsored Article
'There was no future for me in Turkey'
People-watching: October 12th
Sponsored Article
Where is the Swedish music industry heading?
The Local Voices
'Swedish startups should embrace newcomers' talents - there's nothing to fear'
Sponsored Article
Last chance to vote absentee in the US elections
How far right are the Sweden Democrats?
Property of the week: Triangeln, Malmö
Sweden unveils Europe's first elk hut
People-watching: October 7th-9th
The Local Voices
Syria's White Helmets: The Nobel Peace Prize would have meant a lot, but pulling a child from rubble is the greatest reward
Missing rune stone turns up in Sweden
Nobel Prize 2016: Chemistry
jobs available