Surströmming: Horror in a Can

One of mankind's more regrettable discoveries is that you can eat fish at a certain stage of decomposition and survive. Confusing ought with is, some people then decided that because it was possible to do this, it should be done. If you were ever to be transported back to ancient Rome, you would immediately be confronted with the omnipresence of garum, the fermented fish sauce that was used as a seasoning and widely mocked as repulsive even in Roman times. The Vietnamese also use fish sauce to this day.

But the Swedes take it one step back, refusing to wait until the fish liquefied. A friend recently brought back from Sweden a bulging tin can of 'fermented' (that is, half-rotten) chunks of herring, a Swedish specialty called 'surströmming'. A genteel Swiss food critic described this dish as 'horror in a can' (g) and described a tasting 'party' thus:

The biggest challenge when eating strömming is to vomit only after the first bite, not before. The word 'bestial' aptly describes the odor, the taste is just plain disgusting. Spicy, bitter, tangy, and sour. No-one in the group was able to take more than 5 grams into their mouths.

My friend, who staged a tasting party of his own, reached deep into his richly-stocked clearinghouse of metaphors to describe it:

Unspeakably vile. I managed one bite without throwing up and
couldn’t get down any more than that. It was a taste that resembled a rotting
corpse in a plastic bag left in an alley behind an Indian restaurant in the sun
for a few days. It was like what I imagine it would taste like blowing a
syphilitic homeless man who has pissed himself for the past three days
straight. It wasn’t pungent or offensive in smell beyond a ripe fart, it wasn’t
sharp, or tangy at all, but dear lord – in the mouth, it was like licking the
worst thing imaginable. The sheer sickly putrefaction taste just conjured up
dead flies in the bottom of a cheap beer bottle in a deserted crack house.

In the following video, the indomitable Aussie Louis barely manages to choke down some surströmming, which is really something, seeing as he has no problem eating roadkill and live scorpions

4 thoughts on “Surströmming: Horror in a Can

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