Let´s do it different, I said to myself lanning this article. As funny as all those disgusting videos of the “Surstroemming Challenge” in YouTube are, the disrespectful and ashaming they are. I mean, regardless of how food looks, smells or even tastes, it is a national thing. Surstroemming can be regarded as a Swedish national dish with a long history. So, when I got my can of fermented fish, I swore that if I eat it, I will certainly do it the classic way, respecting the traditions and paying tribute to such an old sanctum of Swedish delicacies.
Surstroemming: The classic way
So, after receiving the all-familiar red/yellow designed can – I ordered it via amazon.com at a price of around 35 Euros – I stored it in my kitchen. To be honest, I couldn´t find a friend, colleague or even stranger who wanted to share this experience with me. Those who already knew it, instantly declined my offer and wished me luck. The ones not (yet) knowing, did so after a quick ort online research persuaded them that this was a bad idea. So I switched to the second-best choice: My kids. At least they cannot refuse what Daddy says …
So, what it Surstroemming “classic way”? Well, the ingredients are simple: A special bread is needed, which I could have ordered as well but went for a light smörrebroed-style wheatbread sandwich. I also bought classy, sour as hell, pickles and an onion. Both – chopped to small cubes – would be the base of the bread not which small pieces of the fermented herring freshly out of the can would be arranged and devoured with pleasure. The “trick” is, according to some blogs and Surstroemming tutorials, to open the can under water so that most of the odors would be “filtered” or kept from entering the nostrils. Okay, let´s go then!
Opening the Surstroemming can … hell breaking loose
My two kids and me went to the farthest seating bench we could find, seaside view towards the Baltic Sea – with Sweden just 1 week “around the corner” from here as a reference. My oldest son got briefed to act as the photographer, my youngest son having a plastic puking bag and wet wipes ready … just in case. I went under water with my hands and the can, put the can-opener to the metal and pushed it. Because of the pressure that had been building up inside the can over the weeks and months, a slimy, creamy, pinky fluid literally shot out of the can and within seconds the clear fresh water in the bucket took over the color. With it, small pieces of fish-flesh exploded out of the can and after two or three seconds … hell … broke … loose.
Honestly, no joke: I cannot describe the utter horror, the blood-curdling, absolutely sudden-death-provoking stench that was instantly shooting up our nostrils, puncturing the lungs, provoking a strong urge to puke, creating pearls of sweat on our foreheads. It was pure horror! I mean, we were standing to windward from the bucket and there was a 15 knots wind, even this strong breeze couldn´t take away the reek from us. It was awful and horrible. My son couldn´t take any more photographs and ran away, my younger one shortly before shitting his pants and coughing up blood. I had tears in my eyes and my brain began to fade out.
Absolutely no way!
I tried. I really tried. But this was too much. No matter how many tutorials I have seen, no matter how many movies I had watched, nothing could have prepared me for this experience. This is by far the worst smell I ever in my life had to let into my nose, even the odors back from my civil servant-months in a clinic (including some dead people) can cope with what Surstroemming smells like. Unbearable, no way I could ever eat this, let alone swallow even a tiny bit of it.
I took out my hands of the bucket, putting the half opened can into a thick plastic bag. The stench was brutal! My hands, the bucket, the can opener had it on them. My sons watched me from far away – I could see a couple frantically looking around 150 meters away as they apparently also got alarmed by the smell. We took the garbage bag to our boat´s jetty where I began scrubbing my hands and the can opener frantically. No chance: The stink on the opener was so bad that I also threw it to the bag, tied it up (hopefully) air tight and threw it into the bin, hoping that no poor worker would have to open it and that it might be burned right away.
The bucket, which is part of my boat´s equipment list, was still transpiring the biting stench of the rotten fish even after I gave it the second thorough scrub with the sharpest of my cleansing agents available, so I decided to let it sink down to the bottom of the marina – still connected to the rear cleat. Something inside the still functioning parts of my brain maybe thought that the “deep” will heal the plastic. My clothing, most of it the vest I was wearing, was worse: The odors seemed to grab a hold in the garments, so I took it off and buried it in the back of my car´s trunk.
Surstroemming: Is it really that bad?
We didn´t speak a word. This experiment went so horribly wrong, considering my high motives and my will to respect the century old traditions of culinary Sweden. I just couldn´t even smell the fish, how would I have been able to cut the filets, garnish the sandwich and eat it? I mean, anyone really taking this into his mouth must freaking stink for weeks out of it like the Death in person! I am not exaggerating here – it took me more than 20 minutes under my shower back home to scrub off the last bit of stink, I cut down the finger nails to the skin just to get off even the tiniest fraction of poisoned water from below them …
My belly, still upside down, couldn´t grasp the concept of eating for 2 hours straight. I still had the sharp stench in my nose and a very, very unpleasant feeling in my guts. The only thing I was capable of eating for the whole rest of the day was a simple, easy, tasty, sweet and fresh apple! So, I wished I would have been able to post a different article stating that it wasn´t that bad at all and that Surstroemming eaten the traditional way was an “interesting yet tasteful experience.” But I can´t. It was horrible. Period.
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