Surströmming, often referred to as one of the world’s smelliest foods, is a unique culinary experience that many are curious about. Originating from Sweden, this fermented herring has been both a source of intrigue and a beloved delicacy for centuries.
In 1981, a German landlord evicted a tenant without notice after the tenant spread surströmming brine in the apartment building’s stairwell. When the landlord was taken to court, the court ruled that the termination was justified when the landlord’s party demonstrated their case by opening a can inside the courtroom. The court concluded that it “had convinced itself that the disgusting smell of the fish brine far exceeded the degree that fellow-tenants in the building could be expected to tolerate“.Wikipedia
If you’ve ever wondered how to taste this aromatic adventure, you’re in the right place. This guide will walk you through the ins and outs of enjoying surstromming, from understanding its rich history to mastering the eating process.
What is Surstromming?
Surstromming is a traditional Swedish dish made from Baltic Sea herring. The herring is fermented in a specific manner, resulting in a strong aroma and distinct taste.
Typically, the fish is caught in spring, salted, and then left to ferment in barrels for a couple of months. After this initial fermentation, it’s canned, and the fermentation continues inside the can.
When opened, the can releases a powerful smell, which is often the first introduction many have to this unique dish. People usually enjoy surstromming with thin bread, potatoes, and other accompaniments.
Choose the Right Setting
The experience of eating surstromming is as much about the ambiance as it is about the dish itself. Given its potent aroma, it’s best to open the can outdoors, preferably in a well-ventilated area like a garden or a spacious balcony.
This not only allows the smell to disperse but also sets a relaxed environment. If you’re sharing the experience with friends or family, consider setting up a picnic-style seating to make it a memorable event.
Open the Can Carefully
The fermentation process creates a significant build-up of gases inside the can.
When opening, ensure you’re wearing an apron or old clothes, as the liquid might splash. Submerging the can slightly in water helps in two ways: it captures the initial strong aroma, and the water pressure prevents the liquid from spraying out.
Use a sturdy can opener and take your time to avoid any mishaps.
Ready the Side Dishes
While surstromming is the star of the show, the accompaniments play a crucial role in balancing its intense flavor.
Begin by thinly slicing red onions; their sharpness contrasts beautifully with the fish. Boil some potatoes until they’re soft but still firm. The creaminess of the potatoes will mellow down the saltiness of the surstromming.
If you’re using tunnbröd (thin bread), have it fresh and ready. The crispness adds a delightful texture to each bite.
Serve the Fish
Once you’ve opened the can, you’ll notice the fish is quite tender. Using a fork, gently lift the fish out, letting any excess liquid drip off. Place it on a serving dish.
Some enthusiasts enjoy the fish with its skin and bones for an authentic experience, while others prefer a cleaner bite. If you choose to deskin and debone, do so with care to retain the fish’s delicate flesh.
Create Your Bite
Crafting the perfect bite is an art. Start with a base of tunnbröd (Swedish thin bread). Layer it with a slice of boiled potato. Place a piece of surstromming on top, followed by some sliced red onions.
Finish with a generous dollop of sour cream. This layering ensures you get a harmonious blend of flavors in every bite.
Take the Plunge
As you take your first bite, it’s essential to keep an open mind. The aroma of surstromming is undeniably strong, but its flavor is often milder and more nuanced. The combination of accompaniments helps in balancing the taste, making it a unique gastronomic experience.
Pair with a Drink
A cold beverage can elevate the surstromming experience. Traditional choices like Swedish beer or schnapps not only cleanse the palate but also complement the dish’s flavors. If alcohol isn’t your preference, opt for a cold sparkling water with a slice of lemon.
Enjoy the Experience
Beyond the taste, eating surstromming is about embracing a centuries-old tradition. Whether you’re savoring it alone or sharing it with loved ones, take a moment to appreciate the rich history and cultural significance of this unique dish.
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What are the Best Places to Buy Surströmming in the US?
If you’re keen on tasting the unique Swedish delicacy surströmming, while in the US, here are the top places to consider.
Specialty Scandinavian Stores
Cities with a notable Scandinavian presence, like Minneapolis (your best bet is Ingerbretsens, but they don’t always stock it) or Seattle (try Scandinavian Specialties, “the last remaining Scandinavian store in Seattle”), often have specialty stores that stock surströmming, especially during its traditional late summer season.
While we can’t guarantee any specialty stores that stock it, do your own research as you know your city the best.
- Major Platforms like Amazon (or search deeper) and eBay often have listings for surströmming, but stock is never guaranteed. Amazon stock usually sells very fast. On eBay you might find more stock, but some of the listings/products usually “stink”. Get it? 😃 Alright Alright Alright. Some eBay sellers sell “fake” surströmming so be careful.
- Stinky Fish Challenge is a dedicated platform that not only sells surströmming but also promotes the surströmming challenge, where brave souls attempt to eat this pungent delicacy.
- Surströmming Supplier is a specialized online store that offers authentic surströmming. They pride themselves on providing quality products and often share insights into the traditional Swedish delicacy. They ship to US, Canada and a lot of other countries.
Always check the expiration date when purchasing and store the can in a cool place to ensure the best tasting experience.
Tips for the Surstromming First-Timers
One of the most daunting aspects of trying surstromming for the first time is its potent aroma. But with a few strategies in place, you can make the experience more palatable and even enjoyable. Here’s a guide to help you with the initial sensory overload 😁 and savor the unique flavors of this Swedish delicacy.
The first and most common advice is to open the can outdoors. The open space allows the strong aroma to disperse more quickly, making it less overwhelming. Plus, the fresh air can counteract the intensity of the smell.
After you enjoyed surstromming, you might find that its distinctive aroma lingers on your clothes (less if you followed our advice and opened it outside). If you’ve gotten some of it on you (sheesh, bad move!), we know some effective methods to get the fish smell out of your clothes.
Pair with Strong Flavors
The potent aroma of surstromming can be a sensory challenge for many. However, with the right accompaniments, you can not only enhance the taste but also make the smell more bearable. Here’s a list of ingredients that can help:
- 🧅 Fresh Red Onions with their sharp and pungent flavor can counteract the strong fishy aroma, providing a refreshing bite.
- 🌿 Chives. These green herbs add a mild onion-like taste, which can complement the surstromming and divert attention from its overpowering smell.
- 🌿 Dill which is a staple in many Swedish dishes, offers a fresh and slightly tangy flavor that pairs well with fermented fish.
- 🍶 Sour Cream. Its creamy texture and tangy taste can mellow down the strong flavors of surstromming, making it more palatable.
- 🍞 Crisp Rye Bread with the earthy and slightly sweet flavor of rye bread can serve as a neutral base, balancing out the intense taste of the fish.
- 🥔 Boiled Potatoes. A classic accompaniment, potatoes have a mild flavor that can absorb and dilute the surstromming’s strong taste.
While surstromming is traditionally paired with certain beverages, you might want a comforting cup of coffee afterward. So if you’re in the mood for coffee but find yourself without your usual setup, there are simple ways to craft the perfect coffee, even without a coffee maker.
The sharpness of these ingredients can divert your senses, making the aroma less dominant.
Serving surstromming chilled can slightly reduce its pungency. Consider refrigerating the can a few hours before you plan to eat. Cold temperatures can tame both the smell and taste, making it milder.
Use a Neutralizer
Just as coffee beans are used to neutralize the nose between perfume samples, you can use bread or crispbread as a palate cleanser. Taking a bite of bread before and after can help reset your taste buds.
Drinking water or sipping on a cold beverage can help in washing down the strong taste and refresh your palate. Traditional choices like Swedish beer or schnapps can also complement the dish’s flavors.
💪Be Strong! Mind Over Matter
Remember, a significant part of the surstromming experience is psychological. Preparing yourself mentally and focusing on the cultural and culinary significance of the dish can make the experience more enriching.
If you’re hesitant about trying surstromming, sometimes it’s best to just start doing and stop overthinking. Overthinking can hold you back from new experiences and this one can actually be a fun and memorable one (especially with friends or family).
Surströmming 👩🍳 Recipes
When prepared correctly and paired with the right ingredients, many people do enjoy its unique taste. Here are a few traditional and unconventional surströmming recipes:
Surströmming Sandwich (Surströmmingsklämma)
The tradition of eating fermented fish in Scandinavia traces back over a thousand years. Surströmming, with its robust taste, became an economical way for fishermen to preserve their catches over the winter months. Over time, it became a staple in northern Swedish cuisine. The Surströmmingsklämma is a modern approach to enjoying this ancient dish, offering a balanced mix of flavors and textures.
This sandwich is often consumed in gatherings called surströmmingsskivor, which are essentially surströmming tasting parties. Traditionally held in late August, these events gather friends and family together, where the act of eating surströmming becomes as much a communal experience as it is a culinary one. Both Swedes and adventurous tourists partake in this tradition.
- 1 can of surströmming
- Hard flatbread (like tunnbröd or knäckebröd, eg. crispbread)
- Boiled potatoes, thinly sliced
- Red onion, thinly sliced
- Sour cream
- Fresh dill, chopped
- Open the surströmming can outdoors, and drain the liquid.
- Spread butter on the flatbread.
- Layer slices of boiled potato, surströmming fillets, slices of red onion, a dollop of sour cream, and sprinkle with dill.
- Fold the flatbread in half or serve it open-faced, and enjoy!
The integration of surströmming into salads is a nod to the evolution of Swedish culinary tastes, combining traditional elements with a contemporary twist. The idea behind this mix is to dilute the strong taste of surströmming with other fresh ingredients, making it more tasty for those not accustomed to its potent flavor.
This salad is perfect for picnics or light summer lunches. It’s an easier introduction to surströmming for the uninitiated, offering a fusion of flavors. While mainly eaten by Swedes, its milder taste attracts more diverse audiences including foreign visitors keen to experiment.
- 1 can of surströmming
- 3 boiled potatoes, diced
- 2 apples, diced
- 1 red onion, finely chopped
- 3 tbsp of crème fraîche (eg. gräddfil) or sour cream
- Fresh chives, chopped
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Open the surströmming can outdoors and drain off the liquid. Remove the bones and skin, then chop the fillets into small pieces.
- In a mixing bowl, combine the surströmming, diced potatoes, apples, and red onion.
- Add the crème fraîche (eg. gräddfil) or sour cream and mix well.
- Season with salt, pepper, and chives. Refrigerate for an hour before serving.
Surströmming Pasta (spicey or not)
If this is the first time you’re herring (😁) about the surströmming salad, it’s normal. Historically, surströmming and pasta never crossed paths. However, inventive chefs and home cooks began experimenting, resulting in dishes like the surströmming pasta.
Ideal for dinner, especially during late summer or early autumn. It’s a dish that appeals to those who appreciate culinary adventures and fusion cuisine. While not rooted in tradition, it has gained traction among younger Swedes and foreigners alike, looking for a modern twist on a classic dish.
- 1 can of surströmming
- 200g spaghetti or linguine
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 red chili, finely chopped (optional for heat)
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- Fresh parsley, chopped
- Grated Parmesan cheese (optional)
- Open the surströmming can outdoors, drain the liquid, and remove the bones and skin. Flake the fillets.
- Cook the pasta according to the package instructions. Drain and set aside.
- In a pan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the garlic and chili and sauté (fry quickly) until fragrant (until you can smell it).
- Add the flaked surströmming and cook for 2-3 minutes.
- Add the cooked pasta to the pan and toss well.
- Serve with a sprinkle of fresh parsley and optionally, some grated Parmesan cheese.
These 3 recipes use the distinct taste of surströmming in a way that complements its flavor. Adjust according to personal preference!
More Than Just a Fish! A Guide to the Surstromming Experience
Surstromming isn’t just a dish; beyond the basic steps of eating this fermented delicacy, there’s so much more to explore.
The Fermentation Process
The unique taste and aroma of surstromming come from its fermentation process. The herring is first salted to draw out moisture, creating an environment where only certain bacteria thrive. These bacteria produce acids that prevent the fish from rotting, giving it its characteristic flavor. The longer the fermentation, the stronger the taste.
Surstromming is typically available in late August, following the fishing season in spring. This timing ensures the herring used is of the best quality.
Many Swedes consider the third Thursday of August as the official start of the surstromming season (affectionately called Surströmmingspremiär; pronounce it and you win our hearts), marking it with celebrations and feasts.
Pairing with Other Dishes
While the traditional accompaniments are tunnbröd, potatoes, and onions, surstromming can also be paired with other dishes. Some enjoy it with a fresh salad, while others love it with crispy rye bread. Experimenting with different pairings can lead to delightful culinary discoveries.
We also talked a bit more about ingredient pairings above. So scroll back up if you missed it.
Handling the Leftovers
If you find yourself with leftover surstromming, it’s essential to store it correctly. Transfer the fish to a sealed container and refrigerate.
While the aroma might intensify, the fish will remain good to eat for a few days. You can also try using it in different recipes, like maybe pan bread with surstromming.
Respecting the Tradition
Surstromming has deep roots in Swedish culture.
While it’s great to be adventurous with food, it’s equally important to approach traditional dishes like surstromming with an open mind and a respectful attitude (especially if you’re a vlogger or an influencer and you post your experience online).
It’s a way of honoring the culture, history, and people behind the dish.
Surstromming: Beyond the Can
The world of this fermented fish is actually pretty wide and filled with intriguing tales and traditions. Let’s learn some lesser-known aspects of surstromming that make it such a captivating subject.
- A Historical Delight. Surstromming’s origins trace back to the 16th century, if not earlier. It began as a preservation method when salt was expensive and scarce. By using less salt and allowing the fish to ferment, Swedes could keep their catch edible for longer periods. Over time, what started as a necessity became a cherished tradition.
- Check The Can First. While surstromming is safe to eat, there are a few precautions to keep in mind. Always check the can for any signs of damage or bulging. A slightly swollen can is normal due to fermentation gases, but excessive bulging might indicate spoilage. Also, if the fish has an off or rancid smell (different from its typical strong aroma), it’s best to avoid consumption.
- Share the Experience. Introducing friends or family to surstromming can be a fun activity. If you’re hosting a tasting session, ensure you provide ample accompaniments and beverages. Setting the mood with some Swedish music or decor can also enhance the experience.
Mythbusters, Surstromming edition
As it gained global attention (mainly due to the social media challenge frenzy) Surstromming has been the subject of many myths and misconceptions.
🦄 Myth: Surstromming is Rotten Fish
Fact: Contrary to popular belief, surstromming is not “rotten”. It undergoes a controlled fermentation process, similar to how certain cheeses or sauerkraut are made. The fermentation gives it its distinctive taste and smell, but it’s far from being spoiled or rotten.
🦄 Myth: It’s the Smelliest Food in the World
Fact: While surstromming is undoubtedly one of the most aromatic foods, claiming it’s the smelliest is subjective. Other dishes, like the durian fruit from Southeast Asia or the Korean dish hongeo, also have strong odors that can be challenging for the “uninitiated”.
🦄 Myth: Swedes Eat Surstromming Regularly
Fact: While surstromming is a traditional Swedish dish, it’s not a daily staple. It’s often enjoyed during specific seasons, especially late summer, and is more of a special occasion or festive food.
🦄 Myth: You Should Eat Surstromming Straight from the Can
Fact: Surstromming is rarely eaten straight from the can. It’s typically paired with a variety of accompaniments like tunnbröd (thin bread), potatoes, onions, and sour cream. These additions balance out the strong flavor of the fish.
🦄 Myth: Surstromming is an Ancient Viking Dish
Fact: While surstromming has historical roots in Sweden, tracing it back to the Vikings might be a stretch. The dish is believed to have originated in the 16th century, long after the Viking age ended.
🦄 Myth: The Cans Explode Due to Fermentation
Fact: While surstromming cans may bulge due to the fermentation gases, they don’t typically explode. However, it’s essential to handle them with care and store them properly to prevent any accidents.
🦄 Myth: Surstromming is an Acquired Taste Only for Swedes
Fact: While many Swedes grow up with surstromming and develop a taste for it, plenty of people from other cultures have tried and enjoyed it. Like any unique dish, it might take some getting used to, but it’s not exclusive to Swedish palates.
Let’s appreciate surstromming for what it truly is: a unique and cherished culinary tradition with deep roots in Swedish culture.
Surstromming FAQ & Curiosities
Some common things people ask on the web. We debunked a few myths above, so let’s handle a few more things people are curious about.
What is the Surstromming challenge?
The Surstromming challenge emerged as a viral sensation on platforms like YouTube and TikTok. Participants, often unfamiliar with surstromming, film their reactions as they open a can and take their first bite.
The challenge is not just about tasting the fish but also about confronting its infamous aroma. While it’s entertaining to watch, it’s worth noting that the challenge often doesn’t represent the traditional and respectful way of enjoying surstromming.
How do you open a Surströmming can?
Opening a surstromming can is a unique experience due to the strong aroma that awaits. To make the process smoother, it’s best to be outdoors, preferably in an open space like a garden. Before opening, place the can in a bucket of water.
This helps in two ways: it reduces the initial burst of smell and prevents the liquid inside from splashing out. Using a can opener, slowly and carefully open the lid, allowing the built-up gases to be released.
It’s also a good idea to wear old clothes or an apron, just in case of any splashes.
What does Surströmming taste like?
While surstromming’s aroma is notoriously strong, its taste is often a pleasant surprise for many. The flavor profile is salty, tangy, and slightly acidic, a result of the fermentation process.
The texture is soft and tender, and when paired with traditional accompaniments, it offers a balanced and enjoyable bite. For those trying it for the first time, it’s often compared to a very strong blue cheese but with a fishy twist.
Does anyone actually enjoy Surstromming?
Absolutely! Surstromming is a beloved delicacy in Sweden and has been enjoyed for centuries. For many Swedes, it’s not just about the taste but also the memories and traditions associated with it.
Family gatherings, festive celebrations, and the joy of sharing this unique dish with loved ones make the experience special. While it might be an acquired taste for some, many appreciate its unique flavor and the cultural significance it holds.
Is Surstromming illegal?
Surstromming itself is not illegal. However, its potent aroma has led to some restrictions, especially in transportation.
Several airlines have banned passengers from carrying surstromming in their luggage due to the risk of the can bursting and the strong smell permeating the aircraft. If you’re planning to travel with surstromming or send it abroad, it’s essential to check the specific regulations of the airline or postal service.
Why is Surströmming so expensive?
Surstromming’s price is influenced by several factors rooted in its production and tradition. The process of making surstromming is labor-intensive and follows age-old methods. The Baltic herring used is caught during specific seasons, ensuring optimal quality.
After the catch, the fish undergoes a meticulous fermentation process that lasts for months. This lengthy procedure, combined with the traditional methods employed, adds to the cost.
Additionally, surstromming is a niche product with a dedicated market, often leading to higher prices due to its unique nature and limited availability.
What does Surstromming smell like compared to?
Describing the smell of surstromming can be challenging as it’s quite unique. Many liken it to a potent mix of strong blue cheese and fermented fish (confirmed they don’t work together).
Some also draw parallels to the aroma of rotten eggs or ammonia. However, it’s essential to differentiate between the smell and the taste.
While the aroma is intense and can be off-putting to some, the flavor is milder and more palatable, especially when consumed the traditional way with accompaniments.
How long is Surströmming fermented?
The fermentation process of surstromming is both an art and a science. After the Baltic herring is caught in the spring, it’s salted to kickstart the fermentation. The fish is then stored in barrels where it ferments for about 1-2 months.
Post this initial fermentation, the herring is canned, and the fermentation continues within the can for several more months. By the time it reaches consumers, the fish has undergone a thorough fermentation of a minimum of 6 months combined, giving it its distinctive taste and aroma.
Who invented Surströmming?
The exact origins of surstromming are shrouded in history, but it’s believed to have been a part of Swedish culinary traditions since at least the 16th century.
The practice likely began as a preservation method during times when salt, essential for preserving food, was a luxury and hard to come by. By fermenting the fish, Swedes found a way to extend its shelf life. Over the centuries, what started as a preservation technique evolved into a cultural delicacy cherished by many.
Do Swedes actually eat Surstromming?
Yes, surstromming holds a special place in Swedish culinary traditions. While it might not be a daily dish for most Swedes, it’s often enjoyed during specific seasons, especially late summer.
Many in Sweden look forward to the surstromming season, marked by gatherings, feasts, and celebrations. For many, it’s a dish that evokes nostalgia, reminding them of family traditions and childhood memories.
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