The Food of Our Ancestors: Surströmming

Feeling hungry? Want to eat something that your ancestors enjoyed? How about Surströmming?

According to Wikipedia, Surströmming has been part of northern Swedish cuisine since at least the 16th century. However, it wasn’t confined to only Sweden. Also known as the Baltic herring, Surströmming was eaten by many people in the Baltic countries. Fermented fish is an old staple in European cuisines. The oldest archeological findings of fish fermentation are 9,200 years old and from the south of today’s Sweden.

In short, Surströmming is preserved herring. The Baltic herring is a bit smaller than the normal Atlantic herring found in the North Sea. Traditionally, the definition of strömming is “herring fished in the brackish waters of the Baltic north of the Kalmar Strait.” The herring used for surströmming are caught just prior to spawning.

Wikipedia states, “During production of surströmming, just enough salt is used to prevent the raw herring from rotting. A fermentation process of at least six months gives the fish a characteristic strong smell and somewhat acidic taste. According to a Japanese study, a newly opened can of surströmming has one of the most putrid food smells in the world, stronger than similarly fermented fish dishes such as the Korean hongeohoe or Japanese kusaya.”

Also, Wikipedia states that the herring are caught in April and May, when they are in prime condition and just about to spawn and have not yet fattened. They are put into a strong brine for about 20 hours, which draws out the blood, after which the heads are removed and the fish is gutted and put into a weaker brine solution. The barrels are placed in a temperature-controlled room kept at 15–20 °C (59–68 °F). Canning takes place at the beginning of July and for five weeks thereafter. Ten days prior to the premiere, the final product is distributed to wholesalers. The fermentation of the fish depends on a lactic acid enzyme in the spine that is activated if the conditions are right (temperature and brine concentration). The low temperature in Northern Sweden is one of the parameters that affects the character of the final product.

Fermentation continues in the can, causing it to bulge noticeably. Species of Haloanaerobium bacteria are responsible for the in-can ripening. These bacteria produce carbon dioxide and a number of compounds that account for the unique odor: pungent (propionic acid), rotten-egg (hydrogen sulfide), rancid-butter (butyric acid), and vinegary (acetic acid).

Surströmming is commonly sold in grocery stores all over Sweden. You can also purchase Surströmming online (at rather high prices), with worldwide shipping available, at: https://www.surstromming.com.

Still feeling hungry?

I think I will find a different method of honoring my ancestors…

6 Comments

And the smell has been confused with a natural gas leak. Not for the faint of heart, or delicate stomach. Andrew Zimmern, host of Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods, visited the Swedish embassy in Washington, D.C., where he tried it. He did not like it.

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Ehm, gie ‘s a haggis.

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It definitely sounds like an acquired taste.

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Jeraldene Bloom Stephenson February 1, 2018 at 9:51 am

Is it the same as pickled herring? I used to love it as a kid, but haven’t had it for years.

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    The only similarity is that both use fish. Pickled herring is lightly pickled and sometimes served in cream, wine or mustard sauce.

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Note that the Swedes will open the can outdoors, often rinse the fish with club soda, and eat it on knäckebröd with cheese, onions, etc. Not quite as bad as it sounds initially, but still an acquired taste.

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