This Won’t Kill Me, Will It? | We Tried the World’s Foulest-Smelling Fish
Surströmming is one of Sweden’s most infamous delicacies. Could a Michelin-starred restaurant make it palatable?
Photo: Liz Seabrook
Henrik Ritzén, the gigantic executive chef of London’s Michelin-starred Aquavit, laughed to himself as he finished making my breakfast. We were stood out in the middle of St. James’s Square, just off Piccadilly Circus. He’d decided to prepare my meal in the street, so as to not ruin the establishment’s lunch service with the smell.
An offshoot of the New York restaurant of the same name (which itself has two Michelin stars and a legendary reputation) Aquavit in London serves fresh, intricate Nordic cuisine in one of the city’s most opulent postcodes. But I’m not here to try that. I’m here to eat one of the most disgusting foods on the planet.
What is it?
Surströmming has a reputation that precedes itself. For as long as this kind of thing has been catalogued, this canned fermented herring has regularly topped every manner of disgusting list: from the foulest-smelling, to the saltiest, to the outright nastiest.
“I weighed up the repercussions of chucking up outside of a Michelin-starred restaurant”
A cursory search brings up countless videos of ‘the big reveal’ – the opening of the can, and a multitude of reactions ranging from mild (physical recoil) to extreme (noisy, uncontrollable vomiting). Some people even like surströmming – those people are deeply disturbed.
The foul-smelling substance is made by yoinking young herrings out of the Baltic Sea, and covering them in a strong brine, drawing out their blood. After 20 hours (or just enough time for them to start to smell) the herrings are chopped in threes and fours, thrown into a weaker brine, and canned. The first cans are sold after five weeks – I’m certain mine had been fermenting for longer.
Why do people eat it?
As strange as this may seem, Swedes have been fermenting fish – in some manner or other – for close to 10,000 years, as a method of preserving their food-stocks for longer. In recent years, however, surströmming’s popularity has waned somewhat. Now that the modern Scandinavian has a surfeit of dining options available to them, the prospect of wolfing down tins of gassy, sour fish perhaps no longer appeals as much as it used to.
Instead, surströmming belongs to the golden generation, who ate what they had to immediately after the war, and never left their vegetables on the plate. Henrik told me that in his childhood, his father would throw surströmming parties as the first cans were opened every August, and how the smell was so potent that the butter on his toast would taste like surströmming for days after. I can see how these early encounters with surströmming might push you towards a life of making food taste nice.
How do people eat it?
Henrik, to his credit, prepared my surströmming with real care and skill, mingling butter, potatoes, sour cream, chives, and red onion with the limp, fetid chunks of herring. He alerted me to the fact that butter is the preferred spread of northern Sweden, and sour cream the choice of the south, before electing to smear both across the tunnbröd to make some kind of sadist franken-fajita. He said he was trying to help.
“My initial tactic was to just chomp, to get it down my gullet. But the surströmming had other plans.”
Upon my insistent request, Henrik had brought out a bottle of aquavit (the fiery Nordic spirit to which his restaurant is named) and poured me a sizeable shot to cleanse my tastebuds after the inevitable. Aquavit is, allegedly, the ideal accompaniment for surströmming – why it seems to be the case that Scandinavians match strong food with even stronger alcohol is beyond me, but who am I to question their heritage?
By this point (what most would call ‘the point of no return’), Henrik, his head chef and our photographer, all had their lenses pointed at me. I understood why our photographer was primed and ready, but Henrik and his chef made the whole thing feel like bloodsport. There was to be no more delaying, no more idle chatting about past encounters, or the new season’s menu or the football.
“Go for it. Be brave.”
Does it taste like chicken?
In a word, no. I took a bite that everyone around me thought was “admirable”, and set about trying to swallow the thing. My initial tactic was to just chomp, to speedily mush the lot of it into a starchy, gluey paste and get it down my gullet, but the surströmming had other plans.
Its stench had never been more real to me. Lord above, it tasted exactly like it: cheesy, eggy, sour, and salty in the extreme. Mammoth swigs of water brought momentary respite, but no real, tangible let-up; like the stillness of being submerged at sea, dulling the panic before coming up once again for air.
The water method took the sting out of the bite, but brought about a worse challenge: I now had more to swallow, and a mouthful of fishy, chivey water swishing around my mouth. By this point I was pacing back and forth, hamster-cheeked and in visible distress.
I spotted a neatly-manicured bush outside of the restaurant and weighed up the repercussions of chucking up outside of a Michelin-starred restaurant with three cameras tracking my every move. Good for the article? Oh, certainly. Good for the poor bastard in the front of house team who needs to scrub my sick out of the privet? I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy.
I decided to go for the gulp – down in one, and an aquavit afterwards to rinse out the taste. Against all odds, it went down and stayed down, and miraculously, the aquavit did its job. I mean, if there’s any time to be proud of yourself for drinking spirits in the street on a Thursday morning, it’s now. But my pride was punctured by the lingering taste in my gums, and, as a final indignity, a fleck at the corner of my mouth.
Henrik brought four more cooks from the Aquavit kitchen to try what remained of the wrap. Two stayed silent; two said they enjoyed it. Say what you will, but that level of dedication to your chef is real Michelin star mentality. With the main event over and done with, we had the delicate task of the clean-up. Concerned that the street already smelled like Billingsgate in a heatwave, Henrik washed the herring water down a nearby drain, while his head chef bagged up what remained of the fish and binned it far, far away from the restaurant.
If you think of yourself as adventurous, perhaps a little bit daring – the boldest of all of your friends – surströmming may appeal to you. You may see that red-and-yellow can on the shelf of some Nordic deli and think that you’re Mr. Big. I was once like you. Not anymore.
Kieran Morris is Junior Editor at Amuse. Keep up with him on Twitter.