For the short version, scroll down to the block of bold red text.
My curiosity got the best of me. Usually, I’m of the “Curiosity killed the cat, but satisfaction brought it back,” school: it’s rare that curiosity actually makes your life worse.
In this case, curiosity made my life worse. Before I describe what it was like to open and taste surströmming, let me give you a warning: Don’t try this at home. Seriously. It’s not worth it. I don’t regret having done it, but that’s only because of my rabid curiosity. Watch YouTube videos of people trying it and vomiting, and take my word for it that nothing they say is exaggeration.
Surströmming is bad in a transcendent way. I don’t think it’s actually possible to exaggerate when describing it. To give you an idea how bad I expected it to be (and it turned out to be worse), here are the tools I brought with me to try it:
My instincts told me to leave the can in the bag and throw it in the woods. You’re really not supposed to eat anything from a can that’s that bulgy. Chuck it out. But I know from a bit of research that surströmming just does that.
My curiosity has limits. I had a glass of seltzer water at the ready so that I could wash my mouth out right after tasting it. With a bulgy can like that, I really didn’t want to risk botulism.
As soon as I opened the can, I started regretting committing to any of this. It emitted a fizzy juice that was all cloudy with bits of herring and scales. I should point out that I actually put the can opener in the bag and opened it by manipulating it through the plastic, like I was dealing with an honest-to-God biohazard.
The stench that came out of the can is hard to describe. Very sulfurous, like durian or natural gas, only sharper. It also has a putrid odor. It’s not quite as putrid-smelling as, say, spoiled roadkill, but it’s bad. I’d compare it to a bag of spoiled chicken and bad hardboiled eggs.
The actual stuff inside looked deceptively like food:
That gives me hope that I won’t actually get botulism. It helps, too, that the inside of the can seemed to be pristine: no rust, no punctures in the sealant, no discoloration. Still, if you’ve got a bulgy can, throw it away. Even if it contains surströmming. Especially if it contains surströmming. I don’t care if it’s supposed to bulge. Throw it out.
I really wish I’d used a utensil to take my sample out of the bag, but I used my fingers. My original plan was to be all brave and eat a whole fillet of fermented herring, but not even I’m that crazy. The herring was actually fairly well-preserved. It had the consistency of raw fish, but its other properties were like that of cooked fish. It and its brine were alarmingly fizzy, but then again, kimchi’s fizzy, too, and it’s safe. (Here’s hoping.) I wrestled free a piece the size of a pea and touched it to my tongue. At no point did I willingly ingest any significant quantity of surströmming, because I don’t want to die and I definitely don’t want my burps to taste anything like this stuff.
Admittedly, though, the flavor wasn’t that bad. Shocking, I know, but it mostly tasted like overly salty fish. I touched it to my tongue three times, then rinsed my mouth with most of a glass of seltzer water and spit repeatedly, because, once again, don’t trust bulging cans. Three tastes of surströmming were enough for one lifetime, so I re-sealed its bag and disposed of it:
You might think I’m being melodramatic, but like I said, no reaction to that stench can be called an over-reaction. Plus, I did it in my father’s yard (the only yard big enough to contain the smell), and he specifically instructed me to bury it when I was done. I get the feeling six inches was far too shallow, but I wanted to go inside and wash my hands.
And there’s where surströmming’s real horror strikes. I’ve never had an odor that was so hard to remove. Not cigar smoke. Not really bad farts. Not fish extract.
Actually, fish extract is a good segue. I used to work at an organic fertilizer company, and while organic fertilizer is good stuff, a lot of it stinks horribly. Somehow, even when I got a really good smell of the surströmming, I did not vomit. I think that’s only because I’ve smelled some of the following: fishy-smelling soy protein that had gotten wet and fermented; liquefied fish fertilizer; soil-microbe juice that’s been fermenting in Carolina heat all day; and a jug that contained soil-microbe juice contaminated with fishy-smelling soy protein. That last one very nearly did make me vomit, and I’d say it’s surströmming’s closest competitor for “worst thing I’ve ever smelled.”
It’s probably about thirty minutes later as I’m writing this, and even though I’ve washed my hands three times (soap every time, and a scrub-brush the last time), my fingers still stink of putrid flesh. My father, who is much more sensible than me and refused to even consider trying it, wouldn’t stand near me when I came back inside. I’m writing this post in my underpants, because the smell seeped into the overshirt I wore to protect my good shirt, it seeped into my good shirt, and probably seeped into my pants. I had to take the protective case off my phone, because I used it to take pictures after handling surströmming, and the smell got on the case. The case is now downstairs in the same bag as a cup of bleach, to kill the smell.
Surströmming is an Internet legend, and for a good reason. I’m normally all about open-mindedness, but I swear, if any of my Scandinavian readers try to justify or explain surströmming to me, I will answer with incoherent cursing. If you wanna eat surströmming, that’s your business, but please don’t ever offer me any.
I think I know how surströmming came about: in the long, dark Scandinavian winter, famine struck. The pickled vegetables were gone. The hunters were coming back empty-handed again and again. In desperation, they’d already eaten all the lichen they could find, their horses, and their dogs. They had a barrel of pickled herring in the cellar, but it had developed a foul odor. Still, better to risk dying of food poisoning than a certain death from starvation, so even though the smell that came out of the barrel was worse than corpse farts, they ate it. And they didn’t die. And it became tradition.
And to end the article, let me concisely answer some of the questions I imagine people will have, since surströmming has gotten so well-known on the Internet:
Q: What does it smell like?
A: Sulfur, fish, and rotten meat.
Q: What does it taste like?
A: Overly salty preserved fish, with a faint tang of nastiness.
Q: Did you vomit?
A: No, but I have an inhumanly high threshold for vomiting. I think most people would vomit at the smell.
Q: Did you swallow any?
A: No. I want to be alive this time next year. I also want to be allowed back inside buildings, which I don’t think I would be if I burped surströmming.
Q: Where did you buy it?
A: On the Internet. I’m not telling you where, because I seriously don’t think you should try any. You’ll regret it. Even if you think “I’m morbidly curious like Hobo! I can handle it!” Don’t do it. Even if you’re an exact clone of me, don’t do it.
Q: What did you do with it when you were done?
A: I sealed the fish and its can into a plastic bag and buried the bag in the dirt.
Q: Did you try it with the traditional accompaniments (sour cream, flatbread, etc.)?
A: No. I didn’t have any of those handy, and I didn’t want to risk actually chewing it up, in case it was genuinely toxic. As far as I know, surströmming by itself isn’t actually dangerous, but my surströmming was shipped here from Sweden, and the can was very bulgy and a little dented, so I wasn’t willing to take the risk. I think I got the full experience just from the smell, anyway.
Q: Would you try it again?
A: No. If you send me a can, I’m going to bag it and bury it right away. If you send me a can and pay me a hundred dollars to eat it, I’ll send the can and money back with a note reading “FUCK YOU!” in very large letters. If you pay me a million dollars, well, yeah, I’ll eat it. If you have a million dollars to spend on something that ridiculous, e-mail me. We’ll talk. But I’m still going to swear at you when I’m done.
Q: How would you rate it?
A: I’m not going to give it a numerical rating. I’m going to do something I feel is more informative and rate it by what conditions would have to occur for me to eat surströmming again.
For reference, in order to eat durian again, one of two things would have to happen: I’d have to be overcome by curiosity, or I’d have to be “haven’t eaten in twenty-four hours” hungry. Or there’d have to be at least a $20 bet on the line.
In order to eat tarantula again, I’d probably only need some encouragement from a friend, or, say, a $5 bet, or I’d have to be “haven’t eaten in 12 hours and there’s nothing else in the cabinet” hungry.
In order to eat surströmming again (or, more accurately, in order to eat it, since I didn’t eat any this time), I’d require one of the following: 1) I am currently starving to death, and if I don’t ingest something, I’ll be too weak to keep looking for food. 2) Someone is threatening me or a loved one with a gun unless I eat some surströmming. 3) Someone is willing to pay me $10,000 or more, up front. 4) I’ve contracted a horrible alien parasite that is currently burrowing through my liver and chewing on my pancreas, and the only way to get rid of it is to scare it out of my body is to eat surströmming.
Kids, remember: don’t try this at home.