I ate rotten fish last Wednesday. Alright, it wasn’t actually rotten but rather, fermented. Nevertheless, it did smell and taste rotten.
So why eat it, you ask? Well, because in these parts, this fish dish is rather (in)famous and a very important feature especially in the culture of Northern Sweden (where we are). So I vowed that I must taste it, even if just once in my lifetime.
Over here, “that rotten fish” is called surströmming = soured herring. And to prove how significant this food is in Swedish culture, the calendar even marks one day as surströmmingspremiär!
The author Kim Loughran writes:
The third Thursday in August is the unofficial opening of the fermented herring season. This is Baltic herring soaked in lactic acid and packed in cans that literally bulge with odorous gases (hydrogen sulfide, butyric acid, etc.).
Because the Baltic Sea is brackish, not saline, northern Sweden used to lack easy access to salt. Innovation was needed to preserve food. Pickling, curing and drying are still widely used. The herring was sealed in barrels left outdoors for the spring sun to heat. Statistically, heat would spark the process in mid-April. Eight weeks later, trucks would load the cans and speed out from the salting-house gates promptly by the third Thursday in August.
Ever faithful in helping me integrate, Britt and Rakel invited me to a special lunch last week. It was to be their own surströmmingspremiär and, in their tradition, the only time they will eat this dish for the entire year. (I told you it was special, didn’t I?)
For obvious reasons, we had to eat outdoors. Here, Rakel waits for Britta to finish putting things in order so they can open the can together.
Almost there, here it comes!
And here it is!
As soon as the liquid oozes from the lid, one immediately gets a whiff of that infamous foul odor. But while Wikipedia defines that smell as “overwhelming”, I honestly didn’t think so. It wasn’t strong enough to make you turn away or want to gag. No, no, no, not at all. It was a very tolerable rotten smell, even when you put the fish near your nose before you take a bite. I was…underwhelmed. But that’s just me. Could it be that my receptors have been desensitized by trips to Filipino public markets? Hmm…possibly :-)
So what did it taste like? Well, for the first few seconds, it was very salty. In Iloilo, we have this dried salted fish called “uga” or “pinakas” which I consider very mouthwatering, especially for breakfast with rice (Mmm!). So I would have loved surströmming if only it remained just that: salty.
But then came the strange aftertaste: surprisingly not sour (as one would expect from the name), but bitter. I had to load my mouth with big portions of potato to mask the icky taste, and then drown it in gulps of Coke. Altogether, it wasn’t super-duper-awfully bitter, just mildly awful and rather tolerable. So I went on to eat the entire tiny fillet.
And that was all I had and ever will have.
End of story.
Well not quite.
Britt and Rakel finished six fillets each. Every now and then they would exclaim, “Mmm, vad gott!” (How good [this tastes]!), which made me laugh because it’s a wonder how some consider so heavenly what others find repulsive. This reminds me of people’s attitude towards the durian, or the balut, or even the century egg — either you love it or hate it.
By the way, surstömming is usually eaten with tunnbröd (thin bread — either crisp or soft) spread with butter, potatoes, cheese, onions and tomato, or with sour cream and dill, which we didn’t have that day.
The ladies were thoughtful enough to provide an alternative lunch:
…thin slices of roast beef!
And to cap off our surströmmingspremiär:
…afternoon coffee! Of course.
Thank you, ladies!