Surströmming Revisited: Eating Sweden's Famously Stinky Fish

Jan 31, 2015
Originally published on February 19, 2015 7:39 pm

More than a decade ago, NPR's Ari Shapiro attempted to eat a fermented Swedish herring called surströmming, one of the most pungent foods in the world. It did not go well. Twelve years later, on a reporting trip to Sweden, Ari decided it was time to face his fears and try the fish again.

The first thing I had to remember was: I am not alone. Other brave souls have tried to eat surströmming and failed.

When Matthew Barzun was the U.S. ambassador to Sweden a few years ago, he fed this fermented fish to his children and posted the video on YouTube. How's that for cultural diplomacy?

"I shouldn't try it ever, ever again," says one of the children in the video.

I knew that if I hoped to do any better, I would need professional help.

"We love surströmming, and if you'd like to try it, we'd be happy to help you," says Malin Söderström, a renowned chef and cookbook author in Stockholm.

Söderström's waterfront restaurant, Hjerta, is closed for the winter.

She opened her doors on this night just so we can try the pungent delicacy.

She had three different kinds available. One can had her face on the side: It's called Malin's Mix, a mix of surströmming fillets and whole fish with roe.

"I think it's so fun, because lots of the Swedish chefs, they make their own wine, they have their own beer, they have their own pots and pans and so on," she says. "But I thought [I'd] go for something very eccentric; I go for my own surströmming."

The cans bulge under the pressure of the fermented herring inside.

When she opens it, an aggressive smell jumps out of the can with a hiss. It's like Roquefort cheese, vinegar and seafood all in one.

Söderström explains that my mistake when I tried this a decade ago was sticking a fork in the can and biting into a fish like it was sashimi. That is not how surströmming should be eaten.

She suggests chopping it up as an open-faced sandwich on crunchy flatbread with butter, sliced potatoes and chopped red onions.

"You can use, like, sour cream, dill, and also some chopped chives could be nice to have," she says.

The surströmming becomes a funky, salty baseline of flavor, layered with tastes that are creamy, crunchy, sharp and herbal.

And there's one more must-have accompaniment: beer.

Herring has been a key part of Swedish culture for centuries. Long ago, Swedish workers were even paid in herring. And fermented surströmming allowed people to preserve their catch long after the fishing season was over.

Finally our sandwiches are assembled, and it's time to eat.

I ate the whole thing. And then ... I had another.

When we were finished Malin Söderström even gave me a can of surströmming to take home with me.

It sits unopened on my counter — bulging.

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Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

More than a decade ago on these airwaves, NPR's Ari Shapiro attempted to eat one of the most pungent foods in the world - a fermented Swedish herring called surstromming. It did not go well.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Oh, God.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Laughter) It's coming out. Oh, no.

SHAPIRO: I couldn't do it.

RATH: Ari decided it was time to face his fears and give surstromming one last shot.

SHAPIRO: The first thing I had to remember was I am not alone. Other brave souls have tried to eat surstromming and failed.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: I don't know if - I might throw up.

SHAPIRO: When Matthew Barzun was U.S. ambassador to Sweden a few years ago, he fed this fermented fish to his children and posted a video on YouTube. How's that for cultural diplomacy?

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: I shouldn't try it ever, ever again.

SHAPIRO: I knew that if I hoped to do any better, I would need professional help.

MALIN SODERSTROM: We love surstromming, and if you'd like to try, we'd be happy to...

SHAPIRO: Absolutely.

SODERSTROM: ...Help you.

SHAPIRO: Malin Soderstrom is a renowned chef and cookbook author in Stockholm. Her waterfront restaurant Hjerta is closed for the winter, but she has opened her doors on this night just so we can try the pungent delicacy.

SODERSTROM: So I took down three different kinds of cans.

SHAPIRO: One can has her face on the side. It's called Malin's Mix, a mix of surstromming filets and whole fish with roe.

SODERSTROM: I think it's so fun because lots of the Swedish chefs, they do make their own wine, they have their own beer, they have their own pots and pans and so on. But I thought I'd go for something very extra. I'd go for my own surstromming.

SHAPIRO: The cans bulge under the pressure of the fermented herring inside. And when she opens it - an aggressive smell jumps out of the can with a hiss. It's like Roquefort cheese, vinegar and seafood all in one. Soderstrom explains that my mistake when I tried this a decade ago was sticking a fork in the can and biting into a fish like it was sashimi. That is not how surstromming should be eaten. She suggests chopping it up as an open-faced sandwich on crunchy flatbread with butter, sliced potatoes, chopped red onions.

SODERSTROM: You can use like sour cream, dill, and also some chopped chives could be nice to have.

SHAPIRO: The surstromming becomes a funky, salty baseline of flavor, layered with tastes that are creamy, crunchy, sharp and herbal - oh, and there is one more must-have accompaniment.

The beer is a very important part. Do you want to...

SODERSTROM: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: Herring has been a key part of Swedish culture for centuries. Long ago, Swedish workers were even paid in herring. And fermented surstromming allowed people to preserve their catch long after the fishing season was over. Finally, our sandwiches are assembled and it's time to eat.

How do Swedes say bon appetit?

SODERSTROM: (Speaking Swedish).

SHAPIRO: I ate the whole thing and then I had another. When we were finished, Malin Soderstrom even gave me a can of surstromming to take home with me. It sits unopened on my counter, bulging. Ari Shapiro, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.