Surstömming: Swedish Delicacy or WMD?

Surstömming: Swedish Delicacy or WMD?

Erik Deckers
Laughing Stalk syndicate
Copyright 2010

I'll eat just about anything once. There is not much I don't like or won't try. Even the foods I don't like are things I only mildly dislike. There may be the odd dish here and there that I really don't like — ultra-sweet cole slaw, black pudding, pickled pigs feet — but I'd be hard-pressed to name something I absolutely hate (although "anything vegan" comes pretty close).

I'm actually pretty experimental when it comes to food. I'm the kind of guy who puts ketchup on scrambled eggs (but never on steak), enjoys smoked oysters, and loves peanut butter on a hamburger.

In fact, one of my favorite hamburgers in Indianapolis is the Shewman Burger from Scotty's Brewhouse — a quarter-pound burger with jalapeños, bacon, and a nice big glob of peanut butter. My other favorite is Boogie Burger's Rise & Shine. This tasty dish includes a fried egg, over easy, and bacon with cheddar cheese.

Of course, everything goes great with bacon, so you can't go wrong adding it to anything. In fact, the only thing better than bacon? More bacon.

But a lot of people make a nasty face and make that guttural, gagging "eelllwww" sound — from the back of the throat, like they're trying not to barf at the thought of my comfort food (first, quit being an overdramatic baby) when I mention that my favorite burgers have peanut butter or a fried egg on it.

"Have you tried it?" I always challenge the haters.

"No, but it just sounds gross?" they protest feebly.

"Do you like peanut butter (or fried eggs)?" I ask.

"Yes," they admit.

"Do you like hamburgers?"

"Of course."

"Do you like bacon?"

"Who doesn't?"

"Then why don't you like those three together?"

"Because they just sound wrong together."

Oh, but they taste so right. I have issued a personal challenge to many people: try the Shewman Special, or the Rise and Shine, and if you don't like it, I'll buy your lunch. If you do, you buy mine. No one has taken me up on it yet, but I'm confident I can finagle a free lunch this way.

But while I try to be somewhat open-minded about foods of the world, I think I may have found something I'm nearly prepared to say no to.

I recently read an article in The Local, Sweden's English newspaper, about surströmming (sir-stroe-ming), a Swedish "delicacy." I use the term sort of ironically, because the word surströmming is Swedish for "sour herring," although some linguists and surstömming survivors prefer the term "rotten herring."

It's not surprising that this exists though. The Scandinavians and northern Europeans love their herring. On trips with my dad to Holland (his home country), we would stop by herring stand after herring stand so he could get a pickled herring with onions. I tried one, and was glad to say I had tried it, but didn't care to repeat the experience. My dad, on the other hand, would get one whenever we passed a herring stand. We sometimes went out of our way to pass by three herring stands on the way to the train station.

But those crazy Swedes have taken the herring thing a step further, and fermented it in tin cans, to create one of the most nasty, potent, offensive weapons anyone could ever stick into their mouth.

According to the story, surstömming has actually been banned from many apartment complexes. Students use it to disrupt class so they can get out of school for a couple of days. And several airlines have banned the canned good because they're afraid it will explode on a flight.

Surstömming is basically herring that is caught in May and June, fermented for a couple months, and then placed in cans, where it continues to ferment. After a year, says The Local, the fish will release "a variety of gases" that can cause the cans to bulge and distend.

Know what else makes a can bulge and distend? Botulism.

I also know several people who release "a variety of gases," but that doesn't mean I consider them a delicacy, or even interesting to hang out with.

This is about the time of year the Swedes will eat surstömming, usually on thin bread with potatoes, red onions, sour cream, dill, and tomatoes, to be followed by hours of violent vomiting and explosive diarrhea.

I decided, after reading this article, that surstömming will most likely go on the "never to be eaten, even when you're starving" list, along with black pudding. But I'm willing to try it first before I make a definitive statement. If I like it, you pay for my trip to Sweden; if I don't, I pay for yours.

I wonder how it would taste with peanut butter and bacon.

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