Friday, February 25, 2011


I gave a presentation at my home department at Kyoto university this week - I normally work at NAIST in Nara as I'm collaborating with a researcher there - and after the presentation we had a small get-together. Last year, a graduate student had bought a can of Swedish surströmming, fermented herring with a fairly distinct odour (don't confuse it with pickled herring), but had chickened out before opening it. The can had sat unopened for the past year, slowly bulging as the contents fermented, and I was asked to show how to eat it.

Now, this food has a well-founded reputation for being smelly. But if you handle it properly the smell is not a problem. Most of the odour comes not from the fish itself but from the brine. Take the can outside with a bucket or large pot of water, put in the can and open it under water. Pour out the brine in the bucket and dispose of the water. Rinse off the fillets, pat them dry then bring them inside. There'll still be a bit of an smell but it'll no longer be overpowering. The smell soon dissipates - it doesn't cling or stick to anything, and you don't carry it with you after eating the fish either.

The herring itself is good - a fresh sour and salty flavour overlaying a savory base. We had it on bread with sliced cooked potatoes and finely chopped onion. I'd brought a small bottle of snaps, which goes well with it. We were perhaps a dozen people or a few more, all of whom tried it, and the reactions were typical: everybody found it edible, and not nearly as bad as they'd expected (a low bar to clear, admittedly). Most didn't take to it, but some did, and a couple found it quite good and had more than one fillet. The medium-sized can was all gone within the hour.

This is not a tradition in my family so I never grew up with it. But I had it now and again while a student and I like it. About four or five fillets is my normal limit though; bread, potatoes and herring is heavy food. In northern Sweden, where this dish originates, some people eat this perhaps once a week during the season, but once or twice a year is plenty for me. Of course, I hadn't had this for almost ten years so I still have some catching up to do.

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