​The History of Surströmming

Surströmming, which translates to ‘sour fish,’ is produced using Baltic Sea Herring caught in their prime, just before spawning during the spring, and is fermented in traditional methods a minimum of six months. It has developed a reputation as a legendary food for enthusiasts, partly due to how it smells.

But just how did a dish of fermented Baltic Sea herring come to be in the first place? The history of Surströmming is fascinating.

Just how long Swedish people have been eating Surströmming is unclear, but records of the fermented Baltic sea Herring are consumed from the 16th Century, although its history may stretch back even further.

It is not the only fermented dish that remains today; there are similar delicacies in Korea, known as Hongehoe, and Japan, in Kusaya. But it is perhaps the most famous, with its characteristic and legendary odour. However, the question most people probably ask is not when people started eating Surströmming, but how.

Fermented fish has long been a staple across Europe; the oldest archaeological proof of such dishes was found in southern Sweden and is 9,200 years old. However, that was not Surströmming. Although many stories are surrounding the way the word came to be, notably a tale of fishermen whose catch of Herring started to rot after they ran out of salt, they put it in barrels and sold the lot at a Finish port. Returning to the port the next year, they found the locals loved the fish and wanted more, so they decided to try it themselves. They enjoyed it too, and Surströmming was born.

Legends aside, the history of Surstromming seems to begin during a time when brine was very expensive, and the weak brine used in the fermenting process could have been a way to cut costs for preservation that led to this dish. At the time, storing the fish in wooden barrels would have been standard practice, of course, with families making a delicacy batch and eating it over time. Canning only appeared in the 19th Century, and it is at that point that Surströmming became a commercial product.

As a delicacy, the traditional way to eat Surströmming for Swedes has been with a thin bread known as tunnbröd, using two slices to create a sandwich. In addition to the fish, these sandwiches often contain sliced potatoes and onions. These are commonly known as “surströmmingsklämma” and remain popular in Northern Sweden where the dish originates.

Modern Surströmming hasn’t changed, the process may be done in commercial volumes today, but the use of strong brine for a day and then a long time in weak brine remains. Of course, the canning process has allowed Surströmming to be stored and transported much further afield than ever before, allowing an increasing number of people all around the world to sample and enjoy this most famous of Swedish delicacies.

The history of Surströmming is fascinating, and opening a can today reliving that history.