Even if you’ve never tried surströmming, you might have heard the stories. The landlord who evicted his tenant for spreading the fermented fish over a stairwell. The customs officials who held it because they thought it was rotten. The airlines that banned it for its explosive potential.
Why the bad reputation? First, there’s the smell. The canned Baltic herring has an aroma that’s been compared to everything from Roquefort cheese to rotten eggs to “the bilge water from an ancient fishing vessel.” Then there’s the possibility of a briny blast: After months of fermenting, the building pressure leads to bulging cans that sometimes burst open and spray shirts or walls. But those who love surströmming say that once you get past any initial hurdles, the reward is a sharp umami-bomb of flavor. You just have to approach it the right way.
First, to prevent a stinky splash, open your surströmming in a bucket of water. It’s good to do this outside to avoid a lingering smell in the house. Do not eat the fish straight out of the can. Take a piece and, if there’s still bone, pull the meat off. Grab some flatbread known as tunnbröd and layer on fish, butter, boiled potatoes, and red onions. You’ve just made a surströmmingsklämma, or a surströmming sandwich. The varying flavors should come together in a blend of crunchy and soft, salty and sharp, funky and creamy. For extra flair, you can add sour cream, dill, or chives.
If you’re too nervous to try this misunderstood dish on your own, throw a surströmmingsskiva, or surströmming party, where you and your guests can assemble sandwiches together. Just be sure to buy plenty of toppings, bread, and alcohol. If you have any reservations as you peel open the bulging, odorous can, it’s nothing a glass of beer or shot of akvavit won’t fix.