Swedish Fish and Preserved Prawns

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Out of all of the preserving that we Swedes do, conserving fish must surely hold the highest position. Whenever there were guests to entertain, parties to be held or holidays to celebrate, this would be the time for gravadlax, pickled herring in a range of flavors, and smoked fish and seafood. Christmas, New Year’s, Easter and Midsummer tables are not quite the same without a selection to choose from.

Photo by Yuki Sugiura

Then there is, of course, surströmming, literally “sour herring”. You might have heard about these bulging cans of fermented herring with their strong smell (so strong, in fact, that many believe it is illegal to open them in public places). Contrary to popular belief, this isn’t something that Swedes indulge in all that frequently; in fact, I’d venture to say that most haven’t even tried it. The more common ways we enjoy preserved fish are much more palatable (and legal). As the saying goes, surströmming is the only fish that is harder to eat than to catch.

Nonetheless, I can appreciate that the idea of preserving fish may seem intimidating, but rest assured that it is perfectly safe and not nearly as difficult as it sounds. I have included a few of my favorite recipes here which show off the fish in all its glory.


Photo by Yuki Sugiura

I particularly love juicy, smoked prawns [shrimp] with a simple dip, ideal for eating outside on a balmy summer’s evening. Always use the best-quality, freshest fish you can find – ask your fishmonger for assistance.

Swedish Saying:

“Surströmming: den enda fisken som är svårare att äta än att fånga”<
[“Sour herring: the only fish that is harder to eat than to catch”]

Gravadlax with Pomegranate Recipe

[ serves 3– 4 as a starter] 

  • 2 pomegranates, halved
  • 3 Tbsp caster [superfine] sugar
  • 1 tsp white peppercorns
  • 3 Tbsp sea salt
  • 1 small bunch of dill, finely chopped, plus extra to serve
  • 1 small bunch of mint, finely chopped, plus extra to serve
  • 500g [18oz] sushi-grade salmon fillet, skin-on
  • crème fraîche, to serve
  1. Halve the pomegranates and put on an apron (this is not a job for your favorite white top!). Set a large sieve over a bowl and break up the pomegranates, squashing a bit to release the juice. Reserve the pomegranate seeds.
  2. Mix the sugar, peppercorns, sea salt and the herbs with the pomegranate juice. Line a baking sheet with plenty of cling film. Place the salmon on top and cover with the pomegranate mixture. Fold up the cling film and wrap in another layer. Place the tray in the fridge, weighed down with a few cans, for 2 days, turning every so often and draining off any excess liquid.
  3. Remove the cling film and brush off any excess herbs and spices. Thinly slice the salmon and scatter with the reserved pomegranate seeds, mint and dill. Serve with crème fraîche.

Pickled Prawns with Mustard & Chili Kick Recipe

[ serves 3– 4 as a starter]

  •  400g [14oz] cooked tiger or Atlantic prawns [shrimp]

For the pickle

  • 4 spring onions [scallions], thinly sliced
  • 50ml [3 1/2 Tbsp] cold-pressed rapeseed oil or olive oil
  • 4 bay leaves
  • 4 garlic cloves, sliced
  • 1 tsp mustard seeds
  • 1 tsp fennel seeds
  • 1 tsp crushed red chili (red pepper) flakes
  • 1 lemon, zest and juice
  • 1 celery stick, diced
  • 150ml [2/3 cup] white wine vinegar
  1. Mix all the ingredients for the pickle together in a large jug.
  2. Pour over the prawns and leave in the fridge for 24 hours before serving in shot glasses as a canapé. Alternatively, serve on buttered toast as a starter or for a light lunch.


3. Smoked Prawns with Quick Chili Mayo Recipe

Serves 2

  • 100g [1/2 cup] sea salt
  • 50g [1/4 cup] sugar
  • 500g [1lb 2oz] uncooked prawns [shrimp], such as Atlantic or tiger, shell on
  • 1 good handful of wood chips, like oak, apple or cherry (do not use hickory)

For the quick chili mayo

  • 2 Tbsp mayonnaise
  • 4 Tbsp creme fraîche
  • 1/2 lime, zest and juice
  • 1/2 tsp smoked paprika
  • 1 tsp sweet chili sauce or 1/2 tsp chipotle paste
  1. Begin by brining the prawns. In a large bowl, mix the salt and sugar together in 1.5 liters [6-1/2 cups] water. Stir until dissolved then add the prawns and refrigerate for about 30–40 minutes. Remove the prawns from the brine and pat completely dry.
  2. Set up your smoker. Line a large wok with a very generous layer of foil with lots of overhang all around. Add the wood chips to one side of the wok. Sit a wire rack on top of the wok, ideally one that just fits, and place the prawns on the rack on the opposite side to the wood chips. Top with a lid and seal the sides with the overhanging foil, using more if necessary to seal tightly, so that no smoke can escape.
  3. Place the wok over a medium heat and let the prawns smoke for about 10 minutes. When done, remove the foil and open the wok – I prefer to do this outside as there will be a lot of smoke.
  4. Mix all the ingredients for the chili mayo together in a small bowl and season with salt and pepper. Serve straight away while the prawns are still warm, or refrigerate the prawns and mayo and serve cold.

Note: If you have a stovetop smoker or are able to use your barbecue as a hot smoker, this is a great recipe. However, I’m going to go ahead and assume that you don’t. Please remember to keep your kitchen really well ventilated when doing this, all doors and windows open, and remember that any textiles in your kitchen might get a bit fishy or smoky.

Smoked Mackerel with Lapsang Souchong Recipe

Mackerel is one of the easiest things to smoke at home and get great results as the smoky flavor works so well with this oily fish. Using tea leaves mixed with rice instead of wood chips adds an extra layer of delicate flavor. I’ve gone for a classic smoky tea in this recipe, but you could try experimenting with green tea or camomile. Serve with a potato salad and some leaves to make it the star of the show or use it to top some toasted and buttered rye bread with a squeeze of lemon.

Serves 4 

  • 4 mackerel fillets, skin on and pin-boned (get your fishmonger to do this for you)
  • 100g [1/2 cup] rice
  • 2 Tbsp Demerara [raw brown] or light brown sugar
  • 1 Tbsp tea leaves, ideally a smoky tea like lapsang souchong or green tea
  1. Begin by salting the mackerel. Sprinkle a plate or tray with 1 tablespoon sea salt, place the mackerel on top, then sprinkle over another tablespoon of salt. Leave for 10 minutes, then brush off any excess salt and pat completely dry.
  2. Line a large wok with foil as for the Smoked Prawns recipe. Mix the rice, sugar and tea leaves together in a small bowl, then tip this into the wok. Place the mackerel on a wire rack set over the rice mixture. Cover with a lid and wrap all around the sides with more foil.
  3. Place the wok over a medium heat and let the mackerel smoke for about 15 minutes. When done, take the wok outside, remove the foil and open to let out all the smoke without setting off your fire alarm.
  4. Serve warm with a potato salad or leave to cool and serve with salad leaves, beetroot and a horseradish dressing.

Recipes excerpted with permission fromLagom: The Swedish Art of Eating Harmoniouslyby Steffi Knowles-Dellner, published by Quadrille February 2018, RRP $29.99 hardcover.

Inspiration for edible alchemy.