Swedish Surströmming

Meet a millennia-old cultural delicacy that many claim is the smelliest food in the world.

| Fall 2019


Nine-thousand, two hundred years ago — 80 centuries before the age of the Vikings — a group of humans stood by an ancient lake near what’s now the province of Blekinge in southern Sweden, and lowered a bundle into a muddy pit. The bundle contained freshwater fish mixed with pine bark and seal fat and covered in wild boar skin. And this wasn’t the only bundle in the pit. At least 60,000 tons of fish were present. As would be expected, given the date, the fish weren’t salted — they were placed in the ground to ferment.

We know this because of a scientific paper published by researcher Adam Boethius, of Lund University. Boethius and his team of 16 archaeologists spent five months excavating the site, where they unearthed close to 200,000 fish bones. The amount of fish at the site could've easily supported a reasonably large population. The sophistication and scale of the endeavor is causing archaeologists to rethink the idea that people in Scandinavia at the time were nomadic hunters and gatherers.

In Sweden today, starting on the third Thursday of August every year and extending into September, many Swedes take part in a festivity — a surströmmingsskiva — that harkens back to the ways of Scandinavians over 9,000 years ago. And during this time, they revel in eating the modern-day equivalent of that ancient fermented fish, surströmming.

Surströmming’s Potent Reputation

Surströmming is prepared by fermenting Baltic herring for at least three months in a brine. The brine is salty, but not so salty as to inhibit the fermenting microorganisms. After the fish has fermented in barrels for a while, it’s canned, where it continues to ferment. As a result, cans of this fish product bulge noticeably — a sign in other foods that the contents aren’t safe.

The resulting fish, which contains around 12 percent protein, 9 percent salt, and 4 percent fat, is sour, salty, and extraordinarily aromatic. In fact, it’s been called the stinkiest food in the world. Air France, British Airways, Finnair, and KLM Royal Dutch Airlines have all banned surströmming on their flights, citing the possibility that a bulging tin may rupture under the reduced air pressure of flight at altitude. Even the most ardent surströmming fans admit it’s an acquired taste; however, served correctly, many regard it as a wonderful delicacy.



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