Coming soon: Sweden’s smelly fermented fish

Cherished and reviled in equal measures, Swedish fermented herring may just be one of the most divisive dishes in the world. And it isn’t going anywhere.

Coming soon: Sweden’s smelly fermented fish
Ah, the sweet smell of rotten eggs. Photo: Hasse Holmberg/TT

The preparatory work for the 2016 surströmming season is now underway, with the fish currently being plucked out of the Baltic Sea before they are stored away for months to stew in their own bacteria, ripening for fermented food lovers everywhere.

Its rotten egg-like smell has been mistaken for a gas leak. One 25-year-old tin required protective gear to open. And Americans tasting the foodstuff for the first time likened it it to “sewage”, a “baby diaper” or a “dead body”.

Yet many Swedes continue to eat surströmming, a centuries-old tradition that stems from the time when Swedish workers were paid for their labour in herring. The fermentation process, smelly as it is, allowed the labourers to store their fish for longer.

For the town of Kallax in northern Sweden, that process starts now. To make the delicacy, the fish needs to be caught during the spawning season, which in Kallax is the week before Midsummer. It is then packed away to ferment, getting ready for the traditional grand opening of the first can on August 18th – the third Thursday in August.

“We will fill an oak barrel with the fish, usually around 210kg, but we would have liked to have taken ten boxes more, so we might go out again during the night to come,” Kallax fisherman Ulf Lindgren told news agency TT after bringing in his first catch of the year.

Lindgren insists that interest in the peculiar dish has actually increased in recent years, but he did admit that it is an acquired taste.

“With surströmming it’s either black or white. Either a yes, or a no, nothing in between”.

VIDEO: Swedes show the world how to eat fermented herring

For any adventurous types planning on trying surströmming this August, the traditional way to eat it is on flat bread, usually accompanied by potatoes, onion, and crème fraiche.

It also comes accompanied by that notorious smell however, so be prepared.


Yuck factor: Disgusting Food Museum to open in Malmö

Which is worse, the stomach-churning stench of Sweden's fermented herring, the rotting-flesh reek of a Thai Durian fruit, or the pong of Iceland's rotten shark? When the Disgusting Food Museum opens in Malmö at the end of next month, you can judge for yourself.

Yuck factor: Disgusting Food Museum to open in Malmö
Some of the vile foodstuffs on display in Malmö. Photo: Anja Barta Thelin
The brainchild of Dr Samuel West, the American behind Helsingborg’s Museum of Failure, the new exhibition will bring 80 of the world’s most disgusting foods to Slagthuset MMX just behind Malmö Central station.  
“The main aim is that it is fun, interesting, and interactive,” West told The Local. “You can taste, smell, and in certain cases, even touch the food.” 
The museum features a raw bull’s penis on a cutting board, maggot cheese from Sardinia, and roasted guinea pig from Peru, with visitors receiving a tour of each continent’s most unappealing offerings. 
Yummy! Bull penis from China. Photo:  Anja Barta Thelin
“The rotten shark from Iceland is absolutely horrid,” West said. “We have the world’s stinkiest cheese, proven by a British university. It’s hardcore science.” 
But he said he hoped that the exhibition, like his failure project, would also get across a more serious point. “We need to question our ideas of disgust if we’re going to consider some of the more environmentally friendly sources of protein, like insects.”  
West’s team, most of whom worked with him on the Museum of Failure, spent months working out how to contain the smell of some of the world’s stinkiest foods. 
“There’s no ready-to-buy solutions for delivering nasty smells to people and trying to contain them,” West explained. “The best way is a simple medical-grade research jar.”  
Containing the smell of Sweden’s fermented herring dish surströmming proved particularly difficult. 
“We tested it, and tested it and were almost kicked out of our current office space because of the smell,” he said. “I think we’ve got it solved, but I’m not sure. It’s one of those things that keeps me awake at night.” 
A smell jar. Photo: Anja Barta Thelin
West moved to Sweden when he was 21, learned to speak Swedish within a year, and has now lived in the country for 20 years, earning a doctorate in psychology and working as an organizational psychologist. 
The Museum of Failure grew out of his research into innovation and risk-taking, and brought together failed product launches from around the world, including a Trump board game. 
It has been a runaway success, with franchises now opened in Toronto and Los Angeles, and another soon to open in Shanghai. 
“They’re both fun, but the food museum is much more relatable and much more interactive. You can only sniff failure to a certain extent. But if you have rotten shark in your face you wish you were never born.”  
Fancy some soup? The main ingredient for Guam’s fruit bat soup. Photo: Anja Barta Thelin
The idea for the Disgusting Food Museum came out of the barrage of suggestions for new museums West has received over the last year. 
“I started getting all these lists of the weirdest museums in the world,” he said. “And I thought that the only museum that I wanted to visit was the Museum of Disgusting Food.” 
Initially, he intended to make the exhibit as simple and cost-effective as possible, but soon realised that for it to have maximum impact, about half of the items would have to be fresh, meaning they needed to be replenished every or every other day. 
“The exhibit’s a pain in the ass, to be honest. When I was designing this, I was thinking ‘it has to be easy and economical, because I’m paying for it’. But which is more fun to look at, a plastic replica of some food or the real food in front of you? It’s just more fun to have a real durian fruit from Thailand.” 
“It’s really fun and there’s a high risk of failure and if nobody shows up, I’m out a lot of money. A hell of a lot of money.” 
The museum opens on October 31st and will run until the end of January.