August 15, 2010

The stinky fish of Sweden

Since learning of its existence, I have been fascinated by surströmming, or fermented herrings, a Swedish delicacy. These canned, Baltic herrings are the first of the spring catch, and are aged for months according to a centuries-old preservation technique. Packed in salt brine, surströmming are sold in pressurized tins, swelled and fat with fermentation gasses, and, according to tradition, become available the third Thursday of every August in markets throughout northern Sweden. Known as the surströmming premiere, or in Swedish, the surströmmingspremiär, this celebration isn’t for everyone.

Sometimes referred to as sour herrings, these little fish rumored to smell so horrendous that consumers are advised to open the cans underwater or outside, as to prevent them from stinking up the kitchen. I have read stories that claim surströmming have been banned on certain airlines and even in some Stockholm apartments because of their pungent odor, which apparently smells—no surprise here—like rotten fish.

The most common way of eating them is in a sandwich on a crisp Swedish flatbread called klämma, layered between slices of red onion and almond-shaped fingerling potatoes called mandelpotatis. Sometimes slathered in butter or soft cheese and occasionally topped with fresh dill, these sandwiches are probably not for the faint of heart. If you don’t believe me, watch a few videos of people eating them and you might be more convinced.

I know that it would most likely be a horrible idea for me to order a can of these little guys from Sweden. I’ve read plenty of articles written by adventurous foodies who, like me, assume that maybe they will find the consumption of surströmming to be a wildly enlightening culinary experience. Every one of these stories, however, has ended in a dissertation on the horrors of fermented fish, and an account of how difficult it’s been to wash the repugnant smell away from their hands.

That being said, I am from this day forward putting myself on a mission to find someone, anyone, who might want to try surströmming with me during a picnic in the park, or at the very least, sit with me and offer emotional support while I attempt to choke down one or two stinky filets wedged between slices of heavily buttered flatbread.

In the meantime, while I try to work up the courage to buy a can of my very own fermented herring, I thought that I’d celebrate the surströmmingspremiär (this coming Thursday) in my own way, namely by indulging in another variety of preserved Scandinavian fish, that being gravlax. Gravlax literally means grave salmon (grav meaning grave, lax meaning salmon) because it was originally preserved through a process of fermentation as well. It was buried underneath the sand along the northern rivers of Sweden where the salmon came to spawn. This method of preservation, which was much cheaper than a salt cure, yielded a gravlax that was very different (and surely much smellier) than the gravlax of today.

Packed in sugar, salt, and flavored primarily with dill, modern gravlax is easy to make. Some recipes may call for a variety of ingredient combinations with differing ratios of salt to sugar. While dill is almost always used, don’t be surprised if a recipe calls for anise, coriander, caraway, aquavit, vodka, or pernod.

Here is my recipe (my first-ever attempt at home curing!). I served the gravlax on pumpernickel bread with fresh dill, hard-boiled eggs, lemon wedges, sliced red onion, and a mustard sauce made from 1 heaping tablespoon of mustard, two teaspoons of white wine, and about a tablespoonful of olive oil, all whisked together.

And by the way, thanks to my dad for suggesting a photograph of “deconstructed gravlax.”

Since first making this, I've found that this recipe is particularly great for family gatherings. There's nothing that can beat a great brunch during the holidays — except perhaps, one that you can make ahead. Gravlax has become my new favorite make-ahead dish, and is a welcome addition to just about any brunch buffet, and can easily stand on its own served with hard boiled eggs, capers and dark, grainy pumpernickel.

This cured fish will last 1-2 weeks in the fridge.

¼ cup kosher salt
¼ cup sugar
1 ½ teaspoon whole coriander seeds
1 ½ teaspoon whole black peppercorns
¼ cup pernod, pastis, or other anise flavored liqueur
¾ cups fresh dill, roughly chopped
2 equal sized salmon filets, 3/4lb to 1lb each, skin on

Combine sugar and salt in a medium sized bowl. Crush coriander and pepper together in a mortar and pestle, or put them in a plastic bag give them a few good thwacks with a hammer. Add them, along with the remaining ingredients (not the salmon, obviously) to the salt and sugar mixture and stir until it becomes a paste. Place one salmon filet, skin side down, in an 8x8 inch baking dish. Place the brining mixture overtop and top with the second salmon filet, skin side up, making a little gravlax sandwich. Cover with plastic wrap and weigh down with a brick, or another pan (I used another 8x8inch pan and filled it with cans of black beans to weigh it down). Place in the refrigerator and allow it to cure, flipping it every 12 hours or so, for two days. Wipe off the salt and sugar mixture, rinse if desired, thinly slice, and serve.


  1. Couldn't smell any worse than Kim Chee!!

  2. I remember somewhere in my travels eating something similar to this stinking fish washed down with Kummel. As I recall, not to bad once you got passed the smell.
    As for gravlox, there is nothing better regardless of how it is prepared..