I Threw a Dinner Party with the World's Stinkiest Fish

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I Threw a Dinner Party with the World's Stinkiest Fish

The smell of surströmming, a Swedish delicacy of fermented Baltic herring, will punch you in the face if you're not used to it. But for those of us who grew up eating this powerfully funky fish, there's no greater pleasure in the world.

Fermented Baltic herring, or surströmming, has been of staple of Northern Swedish cuisine since the 16th century. If you Google "the smelliest food in the world," you'll find a plethora of YouTube clips showing guys opening cans of of this Northern Swedish specialty as they proceed to vomit in horror. But despite surströmming's extremely pungent smell, many people certainly take immense pleasure in eating it. I'm one of those people.

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In my mind, surströmming was always purely a joyful thing, and I lived happily in my idyllic (if smelly) bubble until a serpent known as the internet entered my paradise. After having seen one YouTube clip too many with guys puking into each other's mouths in reaction to surströmming, I couldn't help but to feel a strange emotion: butthurt.

But as that feeling subsided, I realised those guys weren't doing anything wrong. As with any food culture, context is key. First, you have to understand that Northern Swedish cuisine draws from a long history of hunting, fishing, and preserving food for the long winters. It's a food culture that went largely unnoticed by the rest of the world until Magnus Nilsson of Fäviken became famous for his extraordinary take on the region's cooking.

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A selection of surströmming tins. Photo by the author.

According to Surströmmingsakademien (The Swedish Surströmming Academy) surströmming has existed pretty much for as long as humans and herrings have existed together—fermentation of fish is an ancient way of preserving food. Consumption and production has spiked at times in history when salt has been less available, but fermentation of fish long predates those times.

In Sweden, surströmming is mostly produced in Ulvöhamn at Norra Kusten (The High Coast), but production also exists along the Northern Swedish coast, and the fish is sold all over Sweden.

Your burps and farts the day after a surströmming feast will have an extraterrestrial quality to them.

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Surströmming goes through the same fermentation process as the original gravlax once did. First, the fish is lightly salted, just enough to stop it from rotting. After the fermentation process has started, the herrings are left in a cool place for up to eight weeks. As the herrings ripen in their tins, bacteria produces carbon dioxide and several compounds that are responsible for the acidic, rotten-ish smell. The pressure building up can make the tins bulge into rounded shapes.

If you place butter next to a surströmming tin, it will taste sour the following day. If you eat surströmming indoors, your clothes and curtains might reek for a few days. Perhaps you'll get a call from a concerned neighbour checking in to see you're still alive and haven't been decomposing in the shower for the past week. Your burps and farts the day after a surströmming feast will have an extraterrestrial quality to them.

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As the tins are opened, the smell is unescapable—and to the initiated, quite delightful. Photo by Anna Madberg.

But trust me, the flavour of surströmming is amazing: savoury, spicy, sharp, amd packed with umami. This, however, has to be balanced with the right condiments.

At a surströmmingskiva—or surströmming party—you will make yourself a surströmmingsklämma, kind of like a sandwich. You take some tunnbröd (literally "thin bread"), slather it with butter, and then top it with sliced boiled potatoes, pieces of surströmming, chopped onions, and sour cream. At least that's the way I like it. The sweetness of the onions and potatoes perfectly offsets the sharp surströmming taste. Some people like tomatoes and dill on top, too. At a surströmmingsskiva, snaps and beer run freely accompanied by the sound of snapsvisor, little witty songs about drinking that are sung before everyone raises their glass and takes a shot.

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At my sister's house in Stockholm, we've invited people over for a surströmmingsskiva. There's excitement in the air. As Lisa opens the tins, a grey liquid spurts out, as if a fishy beast is trying to escape it. Everyone's gathered around, waiting for that smell to hit—and when it does, it's glorious. Nothing evokes memories like smell, and I think everyone is instantly transported to their own private surströmming past. All but two of the guests are from Northern Sweden and have eaten surströmming since they were kids.

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Before the tins of herring are opened, Hanna opens a bottle of beer with a box of snus, or Swedish tobacco. Photo by Anna Madberg.

Having your senses shaken like that can be rewarding; you are forced into your own body, into the present. But while that might partly explain the appeal of surströmming, it's not what makes the Swedes return to it year after year. The eating of surströmming has to be understood through the context of Swedish traditions and the food culture that go along with them.

To some Swedes, a surströmmingsskiva is right up there with the Kräftskiva (crayfish party), the Swedish Midsummer party, and maybe even Christmas. It's an important festive, ceremonial event with historical food elements that have been carried on for generations.

Lotta Lundgren—an award-winning cookbook author, TV host, and food educator—tells me that surströmming is the Nordic answer to durian, the popular but pungent Southeast Asian fruit. She says of the durian, "It's more or less forbidden to eat in public spaces, especially in public transport. If people in Sweden ate surströmming at other times than at the surströmmingsskiva, the 'forbidden' signs would probably start to pop up there, too."

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Several airlines, including British Airways and Air France, have deemed the bulging surströmmings tins unsafe to take on planes, due to their risk of explosion.

Indeed, most Swedes know better than to open a can at an inappropriate time. Surströmming is typically saved for August, when the catch from early spring hit the shops.

And the signs have popped up when surströmming has been taken out its natural habitat. Several airlines, including British Airways and Air France, have deemed the bulging surströmmings tins unsafe to take on planes, due to their risk of explosion.

But it's not as if Swedish people like to torture themselves, as if they're practicing some sort of culinary BDSM. Lundgren explains that the first thing to understand about surströmming is that its overwhelming flavour is a cultural one. "NOBODY appreciates surströmming from birth," she says. "It's a taste that takes time to learn how to appreciate, and requires certain condiments and ceremonial arrangements."

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A fat fermented herring fresh from the tin. To balance the sharp taste, the right condiments are needed. Photo by Anna Madberg.

But what's the payoff in eating something with such an unpleasant smell? "Like many other things, surströmming is about mastering your emotions when faced with something unpleasant," Lundgren tells me. "In the case of surströmming, it's [the sense of] smell—to then be rewarded with a pleasure experience. Your sense of smell will indeed interpret surströmming as a fish that has started to rot. But your sense of taste will get an umami experience of almost unmatched strength."

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In other words, just bear with the stench until you take a bite of a properly prepared klämma, in the right setting and in the right company.

Eating surströmming is a way for Swedes to connect with their past, present, and future in a way that religion can't do for us anymore. These stinky fish become a sort of Jesus for us.

And what of those videos on YouTube? "It's no exaggeration to claim that surströmming is the most overwhelming taste in Swedish food culture," Lundgren admits. "[But] surströmming has been eaten in Sweden for 500 years. The Northern Swede who eats surströmming is not eating fermented canned herring—she is connecting with her origin through her mouth."

An there we have it. As a Swede, I haven't been raised to cry if someone pisses on the Swedish flag, if someone offends a God, or if a politician refuses to sing the national anthem. But the old food traditions of Sweden are as close as we get to the sacred. Eating surströmming is a way for Swedes to connect with their past, present, and future in a way that religion can't do for us anymore. These stinky fish become a sort of Jesus for us.

Back at the party, Hannes from Frankfurt is digging into a surströmmingklämma. He only started eating surströmming a couple of years back. He tells me his first experience with the fish was dramatic, as the dangerously bulging tin exploded everywhere when he opened it—nothing was left inside and he had to peel the fish off the walls. Many surströmming parties later, he is now a connoisseur.

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Simon tastes surströmming for the first time. Photo by the author.

Simon is from Stockholm and has not eaten or smelled surströmming before. He's not shocked by the smell, so he makes a surströmmingklämma and takes his first bite. At first, he looks confused. But after a few bites he looks like he's actually enjoying it. "It's good! Savoury and well-rounded. The other condiments complement the surströmming flavour really well." A round of applause is heard around the table as Simon finshes his first surströmmingsklämma.

Just as you shouldn't try LSD for the first time in a scary alleyway, surströmming also has to be taken in the right setting, with the right mindset, and with the right people.

Hanna is from Jämtland and has fond memories of eating surströmming. "When I was little and surströmming season came, everyone was having surströmming parties in their garages—kids running around, everyone partying," she tells me. "You would cycle past and see it in almost every garage, smell it in the air around the whole village. Then that disappeared and we all moved away … but we have continued to have these parties in Stockholm and I'm sure we will continue to have them for years to come. Even when we're senile, I hope."

Hanna agrees that opening a tin with the mindset that it's going to be horrific would definitely be an unpleasant experience. Just as you shouldn't try LSD for the first time in a scary alleyway, surströmming also has to be taken in the right setting, with the right mindset, and with the right people.

"If you can enjoy the taste of an old aged blue cheese, you can absolutely appreciate surströmming, too," Hanna says.

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Emma, Lisa, and Hanna raise their glasses after a snapsvisa. It's customary for plenty of snaps to be taken at a surströmming party. Photo by Anna Madberg.

As the party continues, snaps and beer get downed, snapsvisor are sung, and moans of pleasure are heard as the surströmming tins are emptied. The party continues until the night is nothing but a blurry, happy memory. The following day, my sister receives a letter from a neighbor stating the police have been told about us. A perfect surströmmingsskiva.

Lundgren sums up the deeper meaning of surströmming quite beautifully: "You could say that the wordless message from the surströmming to us living in the hyper-individualistic times we call now is that we are sitting together with our roots and with all our relatives that have lived before us. And that's a very beautiful thought that I think is both calming and pleasurable to the contemporary human being. A human life is not a lone flare on the dark sky of eternity. We are all links in an infinite chain that stretches backward and forward in time."

Amen to that.