"Wait for killer moment of surströmming taste to hit"

With surströmming season in full swing, Nicola Foleher offers her advice for newcomers on how to approach their first taste of this smelly fish dish.

The first taste of surströmming is often shocking

The first taste of surströmming is often shocking

Foto: Petra Älvstrand

Engelska2023-08-21 09:00

Type "surströmming" into YouTube and you will be met by a plethora of videos of grown men (but rarely women, who are far too wise to indulge in such idiotic behavior) crying and wheezing as the pungent smell is released in deadly fizzing juices spurting from those little squat tins. These videos are often set in small spaces, such as caravan or kitchens, which is quite frankly just asking for trouble.

There is one such video where a young chap thinks it is a good idea to open the tin of fish in his car. He is very quickly filled with regret and an intense desire to vomit! 

But is the traditional Swedish dish loved by many Swedes truly deserving of such notoriety?

There is really only one way to find out, and my advice to newcomers is to let a Swedish friend show you the right way to go about the whole surströmming process, to save you from re-enacting those scenes of horror described above.

During our first summer in Vebomark, we were invited by a lovely friend to head over to her garden as she was having lunch and the star of the show was to be the dreaded surströmming.

The lunch was being held in honour of Oliver, a friendly Frenchman who had cycled through our village the year before and had been met with the same loving kindness and heartfelt welcome that we had also received. That year, on his return trip to Vebomark, he’d requested an introduction and lesson on how to eat this famous dish. Thank you, Oliver! I think.

The first, most obvious thing, to note is that you should not open a tin inside your house. Never, ever, do that. 

If you can open it outside in your garden without upsetting your neighbours then do so, but perhaps avoid public areas as no one will thank you for sharing your lunch fragrances with them. So, once outside, try to open the tin of surströmming inside a carrier bag, or if possible, in a bucket of water.

This allows the gases and juices to escape the tin and reduces the odour that otherwise hits and burns your nostrils. Even so, the smell is so pungent you’re unlikely not to get a whiff, so steel yourself.

You can also rinse the fish too if you wish, which might make it slightly less malodorous. Now, no one is recommending that you dig in to the tin, take a forkful and munch it down. That way madness (and a quick visit to the bathroom) lies.

Rather carefully prepare the fish by skinning and deboning it – you may even need to remove some of the intestines depending on the type of tin you’ve bought. Sounding appetising so far?

Then you break the fish up in to small pieces, ready to be accompanied by other, much more appetising ingredients! Buttery boiled potatoes, slices of juicy red tomatoes, a dollop or two of creme fraiche, diced onion and frills of dill, all piled on pieces of crispy tunnbröd are just what you need to make this dish palatable and, dare I say it, fairly tasty.

Build a nice chunky layer of the accompanying ingredients on your tunnbröd, then sparingly place a few flakes of surstömming on top. The trick is to use the fish as a garnish rather than whacking a full fillet on there. 

You are now ready for your first taste of fermented herring. Brace yourself and take a bite. Wait for the killer moment of the taste of surströmming to hit, and then let the relief -- and some shock, I'll admit -- wash over you as you realise that it doesn’t actually taste that bad. 

I really quite enjoyed my first taste of surströmming. But, I have to be honest, I politely declined a second helping.

This is a column and the views are the author's own.


Surströmming is a traditional Swedish dish consisting of fermented Baltic herring. 

The herring is caught, fermented, and then canned, creating a strong and distinct aroma due to the fermentation process. The smell is so intense that it should be opened outdoors. 

It's commonly eaten with flatbread, potatoes, onions, and sometimes sour cream. 

The dish has a unique cultural significance in Sweden and is often consumed during festive occasions.