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SURSTRÖMMING

‘Kind of strong, kind of umami’: How to eat fermented herring the Swedish way

Surströmming, the Swedish fish so foul-smelling it should be opened outdoors. But what does it taste like when properly prepared by a local chef?

'Kind of strong, kind of umami': How to eat fermented herring the Swedish way
Chef Joseph Netlzer tries Swedish 'surströmming' for the first time. Photo: Tom Little/AFP

As chef Malin Söderström opened the can, the trapped air escaped with a hiss and filled the balcony of her
waterside restaurant with the pungent odour of Sweden's infamous delicacy, surströmming.

Likened to the smell of rotten eggs, surströmming – fermented herring – has gained a following online where daring gastronomes film themselves trying the seafood, which should be opened outdoors because of the stench, and preferably underwater in a bucket.

From her seaside restaurant in the small fishing village of Skarsa more than 200 kilometres north of Stockholm based in a former herring processing factory, Söderström tries to defend the delicacy's reputation.

“The sourness with the saltiness together with the bread, potato and butter and onion, it's just fantastic,” the 51-year-old said outside the restaurant, dressed in her black chef's uniform.

Söderström's grandparents lived in one of the village's squat red-wood fishermen's houses near the water and she ate surströmming, directly translated “sour herring”, from childhood.


Chef Malin Söderström prepares a surströmming meal. Photo: Tom Little/AFP

Herring caught in the Baltic are salted after being caught and left to ferment for months in barrels before they are canned. Surströmming hails from northern Sweden, where it is most commonly eaten, but tins of the seafood are available from most large supermarkets across Sweden.

In recent years a museum has been dedicated to the divisive dish, and some restaurants dedicate a whole day to eating it to avoid offending other customers' noses.

But with customers down due to Covid-19, Söderström and her sister Anna called off their own surströmming day this year.

Instead they organised a small demonstration of how the dish should be enjoyed, inviting a handful of friends and colleagues to sample the culinary delight.

Opening the cans away from their tables, Söderström served it to the visitors on Swedish flat bread along with chopped red onions, boiled potatoes, dill, tomatoes, chives, sour cream and hard cheese.


Cans of surströmming. Photo: Tom Little/AFP

Taking a break from the kitchen, 25-year-old chef Joseph Netzler tried the fish for the first time, sniffing it cautiously before tasting it with hard bread, dill and potatoes.

“It smelled a lot better than I thought it would, and the taste was good. It was kind of strong, kind of umami,” he said, sitting on the restaurant's balcony overlooking the village's small harbour.

“I think I've had my fill for a while,” he said, but added he might try it again in “one or two years”.


Surströmming still inside the can. Photo: Tom Little/AFP

Söderström was bemused by YouTube videos of non-Swedes opening cans of surströmming indoors and trying to eat it whole with no accompaniments, often struggling to stomach the smell.

In one such video, a group of friends in the US opened the can at a table indoors, retching and choking before eventually trying the fish.

“The smell, you can't get over it, but the taste is just slimy,” one of the challengers said with a grimace after nibbling a piece of the herring with no accompaniments.

“Of course they think it's disgusting,” Söderström said with a smile. “I would think that as well if I had it the same way.”

“The whole meal is really important. Who you're eating with, where you're eating and how you're eating it. I want to keep that alive,” she said.

Article by AFP's Tom Little

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DISCOVER SWEDEN

The three tasty treats that make spring in Sweden a forager’s dream

Although parts of Sweden are still under snow at this time of year, spring is in full swing here in Skåne in the south of Sweden. Here are The Local's top tips for what you can forage in the great outdoors this season.

The three tasty treats that make spring in Sweden a forager's dream

You might already have your go-to svampställe where you forage mushrooms in autumn, but mushrooms aren’t the only thing you can forage in Sweden. The season for fruits and berries hasn’t quite started yet, but there is a wide range of produce on offer if you know where to look.

Obviously, all of these plants grow in the wild, meaning it’s a good idea to wash them thoroughly before you use them. You should also be respectful of nature and of other would-be foragers when you’re out foraging, and make sure not to take more than your fair share to ensure there’s enough for everyone.

As with all foraged foods, only pick and eat what you know. The plants in this guide do not look similar to any poisonous plants, but it’s always better to be safe than sorry – or ask someone who knows for help.

Additionally, avoid foraging plants close to the roadside or in other areas which could be more polluted. If you haven’t tried any of these plants before, start in small doses to make sure you don’t react negatively to them.

Wild garlic plants in a park in Alnarpsparken, Skåne. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

Wild garlic

These pungent green leaves are just starting to pop up in shady wooded areas, and may even hang around as late as June in some areas. Wild garlic or ramsons, known as ramslök in Swedish, smell strongly of garlic and have wide, flat, pointed leaves which grow low to the ground.

The whole plant is edible: leaves, flowers and the bulbs underground – although try not to harvest too many bulbs or the plants won’t grow back next year.

The leaves have a very strong garlic taste which gets weaker once cooked. Common recipes for wild garlic include pesto and herb butter or herbed oil, but it can generally be used instead of traditional garlic in most recipes. If you’re cooking wild garlic, add it to the dish at the last possible moment so it still retains some flavour.

You can also preserve the flower buds and seed capsules as wild garlic capers, known as ramslökskapris in Swedish, which will then keep for up to a year.

Stinging nettles. Wear gloves when harvesting these to protect yourself from their needles. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

Stinging nettles

Brännässlor or stinging nettles need to be cooked before eating to remove their sting, although blanching them for a couple of seconds in boiling water should do the trick. For the same reason, make sure you wear good gardening gloves when you pick them so you don’t get stung.

Nettles often grow in the same conditions as wild garlic – shady woodlands, and are often regarded as weeds.

The younger leaves are best – they can get stringy and tough as they get older.

A very traditional use for brännässlor in Sweden is nässelsoppa, a bright green soup made from blanched nettles, often topped with a boiled or poached egg.

Some Swedes may also remember eating stuvade nässlor with salmon around Easter, where the nettles are cooked with cream, butter and milk. If you can’t get hold of nettles, they can be replaced with spinach for a similar result.

You can also dry nettles and use them to make tea, or use blanched nettles to make nettle pesto.

Kirskål or ground elder, another popular foraged green for this time of year.
Photo: Jessica Gow/TT

Ground elder

Ground elder is known as kirskål in Swedish, and can be used much in the same way as spinach. It also grows in shady areas, and is an invasive species, meaning that you shouldn’t be too worried about foraging too much of it (you might even find some in your garden!).

It is quite common in parks and old gardens, but can also be found in wooded areas. The stems and older leaves can be bitter, so try to focus on foraging the tender, younger leaves.

Ground elder has been cultivated in Sweden since at least 500BC, and has been historically used as a medicinal herb and as a vegetable. This is one of the reasons it can be found in old gardens near Swedish castles or country homes, as it was grown for use in cooking.

Kirskål is available from March to September, although it is best eaten earlier in the season.

As mentioned, ground elder can replace spinach in many recipes – you could also use it for pesto, in a quiche or salad, or to make ground elder soup.

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