What is Surströmming?

Surströmming, associated with perhaps one of the most infamous food challenges, is simply put a sour herring. That is the literal Swedish translation of the dish that traces its roots back to the 16th century when neither the refrigerator nor electricity were available at hand across the globe. But how does an innocent herring, caught in the Baltic Sea, turn into one of the foulest foods one can feel with his nostrils?

The exact origin story varies from source to source. From the tale of how Swedish sailors were running low on salt and were forced to sell the almost rotten fish to locals at a port in Finland, which they later acquired a taste for, to the very basic legend that the 16th century was an intense period for Sweden. Numerous wars negatively impacted the daily life of an average Swede and since at the time salt was far more expensive than it is today, one had to become clever in order to preserve food for longer periods of time. Thus, fermenting herring with as little salt as possible was the only option to survive the harsh times brought by war.

Still, catching and producing Surströmming is a long process. First things first, the time has to be right, as the herring must be caught before they spawn eggs in the spring, usually around April and May, as the fish has not fully fattened yet. The herring is then put into a brine solution, which is a mixture of salt and water, and placed in a room that ranges in temperature between 59 and 68 Fahrenheit (15 and 20 Celsius). According to tradition, the best time to consume Surströmming is in the late-Summer months, as that is when the fish is tastiest.

Perhaps that’s the time when the Surströmming is at its smelliest as well. The sour herring, which is now becoming a worldwide phenomenon due to its unmistakable gut-wrenching smell, has its own challenge – the Surströmming Challenge, where a still naive and bright-eyed person is changed forever following the attempt to smell, or if one feels very brave, to taste the almost-rotten herring.