Surströmming – The Strong Smell of Swedish Tradition

In Cuisine by Skjalden

Surströmming, a traditional Swedish delicacy, has been a part of Sweden’s culinary heritage for centuries. This unique dish, made from fermented Baltic Sea herring, is known for its strong aroma and distinct flavor. Surströmming, literally meaning “sour herring”, is not just food but a cultural symbol, deeply ingrained in Swedish traditions.

History and Cultural Significance

Surströmming’s roots can be traced back to at least the 16th century, making it one of Sweden’s oldest preserved foods. Initially, it was a staple for fishermen and coastal communities, providing a reliable food source during harsh winters. The preservation method, involving fermenting the herring in brine, was developed as a necessity in times when salt was scarce and expensive. This process not only extended the shelf life of the fish but also gave it a unique taste and texture that became popular over time.

Today, Surströmming is more than just a food item; it is a part of Sweden’s cultural identity. The Surströmming premiere, which occurs on the third Thursday of August, marks the beginning of the season when this delicacy is traditionally consumed. This event is celebrated with Surströmming parties, where friends and family gather to enjoy this special dish, often accompanied by traditional sides and spirits.

What does Surströmming smell like?

Surströmming is renowned for its particularly strong and distinctive smell, which is often considered one of the most powerful odors in the world of food. This intense aroma is the result of the fermentation process the herring undergoes. People often describe the smell of Surströmming in various ways, including:

  • Ammonia-like: The smell can be likened to a potent, sharp scent similar to ammonia or a strong cleaning agent.
  • Rotten Eggs: Due to the presence of sulfur compounds produced during fermentation, Surströmming often emits a smell reminiscent of rotten eggs.
    Sour and Pungent: The odor has a sour, acidic quality that can be quite overpowering, with a deep, pungent character.
  • Fishy: Naturally, as a fish product, it has a strong fishy smell, but it is much more intense and fermented compared to fresh fish.

Is Surströmming fish safe to eat?

Surströmming, when prepared and handled correctly, is safe to eat. This traditional Swedish delicacy, made from Baltic herring that has been fermented, is a well-established part of Swedish cuisine. However, there are some considerations to keep in mind:

  • Proper Preparation: Surströmming undergoes a controlled fermentation process, which is crucial for making it safe for consumption. It’s important to purchase it from a reputable source to ensure that the fermentation has been carried out properly.
  • Handling and Opening: The cans of Surströmming are under pressure due to the ongoing fermentation process. It’s advised to open the cans outdoors or underwater to prevent the brine from spraying.
  • Allergies and Sensitivities: As with any fish product, individuals with fish allergies should avoid Surströmming. Also, people with a sensitive stomach or a low tolerance for strong odors and tastes might find it challenging to consume.
  • Enjoying the Dish: Surströmming is typically eaten with accompaniments like flatbreads, boiled potatoes, and chopped onions, which balance its strong flavor and make it more palatable.
  • Health Considerations: Like many fermented foods, Surströmming is rich in nutrients but also high in salt, which should be considered by those on a sodium-restricted diet.

Is Surströmming illegal?

Surströmming itself is not illegal; however, there are certain restrictions and considerations related to its transportation and consumption, particularly involving airlines and international shipping.

  • Airlines and Air Travel: Many airlines have banned Surströmming on their flights due to its strong odor and the potential for the pressurized cans to explode. The potent smell of Surströmming can be considered a hazard in the confined environment of an airplane.
  • International Shipping Regulations: When it comes to shipping Surströmming internationally, there may be restrictions based on the country’s import laws, especially those concerning the transportation of fermented or perishable goods.
  • Local Laws and Regulations: In some places, local laws might regulate where and how Surströmming can be opened and consumed, often due to its potent smell. It’s generally advised to consume it outdoors or in well-ventilated areas.

Therefore, while Surströmming is legal to purchase and consume, especially in Sweden where it is a traditional delicacy, you should be aware of specific regulations or restrictions related to its transport and consumption, particularly if you plan to travel with it or ship it internationally.