Surströmming, a delicacy banned on aeroplanes
Written by Unity Line   

It's no news that the Poles love the herring. No family celebration could go without this fish. Cookery books are full of recipes focusing on it. The Swedes, however, went one step further. For hundreds of years, they have been eating herring prepared in such a way that airlines ban it and most Europeans frown and hold their breath.


Exploding cans

It is the fermented herring, or Surströmming in Swedish. It is far from fast food. The whole production process takes about six months. Herrings are first put into strong brine and left on the sun. The rest of the fermentation process takes place in the can, which bulges noticeably.

The second reason it is not served in restaurants is the strong smell. It persists up to several days after the can is opened. The fermented herring is best eaten outside where there is no risk of explosion of the gasses inside the can. The explosion risk is so probable that many airlines don't let passengers with Surströmming on board. Remember about it when packing your hand luggage because you may be frowned upon when trying to eat it at the airport.


Not bad at all

When consuming Surströmming, the Swedes don't focus on the content of the can alone. The herring is beyond any doubt the primary ingredient but the ritual requires some more components. The first one is a thin bread, tunnbröd. In addition to the fish, onion and boiled sliced potatoes are put on it. The dish is usually accompanied by a glass of vodka or beer; milk is a common alternative. Many people cringe even thinking of this mix. But not the Swedes for whom it has been a traditional dish for generations.

Surströmmingspremiären is the time of year when the fermented herring is sold. It is the third Thursday of August, which is related to the time necessary to complete the fermentation process. Since 2005, Skeppsmalen has the first museum of Surströmming.


Fishermen's scam

How did the Swedes invent the fermented herring? The genesis is not clear but the legend has it, it was a little scam at first. Fishermen from 16th century Sweden didn't have enough salt to preserve large quantities of herring. On their way back home, they stopped in Finland and sold their half-spoilt product to the locals. They made the deal and went home satisfied.

When they returned to the port after a year expecting complaints, they were asked for more. They were baffled and tried the herring, which turned out to match their taste because it became one of the primary traditional dishes. It is only a legend but adds a taste to the food.

Controversial delicacies

The popularity of Surströmming has reached far beyond Sweden for years. Still, other nations are not easily persuaded to try the recipe. For many people, the smell is the first obstacle, which drains the will to taste even the smallest bit. It is by no mistake that Surströmming wins top places in ‘worst-smelling food’ contests.

Some, however, do not judge the book by the cover and tried it. The reactions vary, but most often the fish is not even swallowed. To be fair, many nations have in their cuisine dishes not appreciated by others. Bigos, sauerkraut with meat and onions, loved by the Poles enjoys a very broad set of opinions in the world. The same applies to tuna eye favoured by the Japanese. Not everybody will cry with happiness when served casu marzu, an Italian cheese with live insect larvae.

When given the opportunity, however, it's best to overcome the fear and try Surströmming if only to be able to say that you actually did it.