For the uninitiated, Surströmming is an infamous heavily fermented herring.
Below is my experience with it.
I “smuggled” (more on this below) it from Sweden a few months ago and on the evening before the Swedish national day1 my brother, a brave (or naïve) soul of a schoolmate of his, and I (not to mention our dog) opened it up near the river. We chose the riverside and the night time strategically, of course.
As was advised to us by a friend, we also took a bucket of water with us. Not – as some may wrongly assume – to vomit into, but to open the tin under water. Due to the fermentation continuing in the tin, it builds up pressure and when you open the tin, it inevitably and violently discharges the bile water. The best way to avoid it spraying your clothes is to open it under water.
Since this was an impromptu action, – other than the bucket – we came only half-prepared. As condiments we brought only a little bread, a shallot and three pickled gherkins.
The hint with the bucket was greatly appreciated, as the opening of the tin was the most vile part of the whole experience. So if you plan to try it, do get a bucket! It stopped not only the bile spraying us, but also diluted most of the putrid smell that was caught in the tin.
Once opened and aired, the contents of the tin were actually quite recognisable. Fish fillets swimming in brine. The brine was already brownish and a tiny bit gelatinous, but darkness helped us get past that.
As for the taste and texture, if you ever had pickled herrings before – it is like that on steroids, married with anchovies. Very soft, but still recognisable as fish, extremely salty, and with acidity that is very similar to that of good sauerkraut.
Washing the fish in the pickle jar helped take the edge of – both in sense of smell and saltiness. The onion as well as the pickles were a great idea, bread was a must!
In summary, it is definitely an acquired taste, but I can very much see how this was a staple in the past and how it can still be used in cuisine. As a condiment, I think it could work well even in a modern dish.
We did go grab a beer afterwards to wash it down though.
P.S. Our dog was very enthusiastic about it the whole time and somewhat sullen that he did not get any.
Well, I did not actually smuggle it, per se, but it took me ¾ of an hour to get it cleared at the airport and in the end the actual carrier still did not know about what I was carrying in my checked luggage. The airport, security, two information desks and the main ground stewardess responsible for my flight were all in on it though. And in my defence, the actual carrier does not have a policy against Surströmming on board (most probably because they have not thought about it yet).
As for acquiring this rotten fish in the first place, I saw it in a shop in Malmö and took the least deformed tin (along with other local specialities). When I came to the cash register with grin like a madman in a sweetshop, I asked the friendly young clerk if she has any suggestion how to prepare it, and she replied that she never had it and knows barely anyone of her generation who did, apart from perhaps as a challenge.
hook out → more fish soon ;)