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Making a stink. September 9, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. You learn something new every day. I learned two new things before 8 a.m. this morning. One was that the U.S. State Department has created a Corps de Cuisine to further international relations. Wow, I thought, what a great topic for a blog post! I was all set to write about it when the second thing I learned blew it out of the water.

It started with an article in The Wall Street Journal, “Champagne Aspirations for Stinky Fish.” (Read it at www.wsj.com.) Who could ignore a title like that? Turns out, the article was about a Swedish specialty, surstromming, aka fermented Baltic herring. After (barely) surviving an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s travel show “No Reservations,” in which he went to Iceland and tasted fish (or possibly whale) that had been buried in sand and left to rot for months, a local delicacy, which he proclaimed was the most horrific thing he’d ever eaten, I really thought I’d seen the last word on disgusting fish.

Oh, no. The stench of this fermented herring, which is canned and left to continue fermenting to the point where the sides of the cans bulge out, has been documented by the Japanese—-no slouches when it comes to making revolting-to-others foods, such as natto and kusaya—as the most putrid food smell there has ever been.  (The German food critic Wolfgang Fassbender confirms this in his unforgettable summation: “The biggest challenge when eating surstromming is to vomit only after the first bite, as opposed to before.”)

The stench is so overpowering that even enthusiasts open their cans and consume the contents outside. According to Wikipedia, when a landlord evicted a tenant for opening a can of surstromming in the stairwell of his apartment building and spilling some of the brine from the can, the court sided overwhelmingly with the landlord after he opened a can of the fermented fish in the courtroom.

Several international airlines have forbidden passengers to bring the cans on board (with up to $50,000 fines for violations), ostensibly because they believe the swollen cans could explode and create a safety hazard, but more probably because they’re afraid a surstromming-loving passenger will actually open a can on board and asphyxiate his fellow passengers. 

The Wall Street Journal contained an ominous quote from a reluctant surstromming consumer: “I try hard to think of applesauce when I eat it.” Whether this means that the texture of the stinky fermented fish is like applesauce (oh my God) or that the person quoted loves applesauce and is desperately trying to distract himself from the nauseating smell, taste, and texture by thinking of his favorite food, I’ll never know. And never want to know.

Fans of surstromming are launching a counteroffensive, comparing it to exalted regional delicacies like champagne, truffles, caviar, and Parmigiano-Reggiano. Compared to one beloved Italian cheese that is eaten rotted, maggots and all, they might have a point. Certainly surstromming may be one of, but not the only, “most extreme foods in the world,” as described by Jacob Holmstrom, head chef of Sweden’s Gastrologik.

Even foods that most of us consider delicious, such as Cheddar and Brie, can raise a stink in the nostrils of cultures unfamiliar with cheese, and of infants and children with much more sensitive smell-taste palates than adults. And of course, there are foods that indigenous cultures consider delicious—Australia’s wichitty grubs, my own South’s grits, Korea’s dog stew—that others find revolting, for whatever reason.

Thank goodness there are plenty of alternatives for us all.

                ‘Til next time,




1. narf77 - September 10, 2012

I saw Jamie Oliver (a celebrity U.K. chef) almost hurl when attempting to eat this delicacy. No THANK YOU…and one moment when being a vegan has totally positively changed my life for the better! No stanky fish for me and hand on my heart I won’t be travelling to Iceland to scarf manky whale any day soon!

I’m telling you, Fran, there are so many days when I’m sooo grateful to be able to say “No, thank you, I’m a vegetarian/vegan!” Whew, what a lucky escape! Poor Jamie Oliver.

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