When I went to Sweden for the first time, I didn’t know much about it. Meatballs, tall blond goddesses, socialized health care? Yes. Real knowledge? Not so much.
One thing that people warned me about, though, was that I was likely to be force fed herring, which (according to myth) is an oily, slippery, silvery pickled fish that was going to smell really nasty and taste like… well… the worst thing in the whole world.
BLECHHHHHHHHHH! No thank you!
Fast forward two and a half years, after I’ve been living in Sweden for ten months or so. I come home from work late, hungry and tired, and headstraight to the fridge.
Before I know what’s happening, I find myself spearing large chunks of pickled herring (inlagd sill) straight out of the jar, not even bothering to put it on bread or the kind of thick cracker that it’s most commonly eaten with (knäckebröd—think Wasa crackers).
A few minutes later, I come up for air again. I lowered the jar from my face, looked at it, looked around the kitchen to double check that there were, in fact, no witnesses, and then took a few last pieces and inserted them into my mouth in a very ladylike fashion.
I am the soul of ladylike behavior, obviously.
The truth is, herring has a bad rap in the US.
Extreme varieties like “surströmming” (which Wikipedia translates as “Scandinavian rotten fish”) have to be part of the problem. Surströmming is prohibited in many housing complexes in Sweden and throughout Europe, and descriptions of it are often peppered with the words “putrid,” “rancid,” and “frightening.”
Besides that—and I have to admit, I still haven’t tried surströmming myself, so maybe it’s delicious—the pickled herring I’ve been exposed to has been surprisingly tasty, especially given the preconceptions around it.
I asked my parents (both of them unabashed foodies) what comes to mind when they think of herring, and their answers were quite, ahem, illuminating.
Dad: “I think of salted, tinned fish… like something you’d find in a survival boat. And it’s probably something that even though it’s on the survival boat, it’s not to be eaten unless you’re close to starvation. There’s probably a sticker on it: ‘Open only in case of nuclear holocaust.’”
Mom: “I am totally baffled. Herring? What is it? Is it cold? Is it dipped in vinegar? Do you put mayonnaise on it?”
Clearly, there’s a gap in the body of American herring knowledge. I conducted a highly scientific study among my friends (read: via Facebook) and common favorites include Onion (löksill), French (fransk sill), and Mustard (senapssill), with a few holding out for Brantevik’s (a variety with black and white peppercorns, dill, chives, red and yellow onion, and some bay leaves).
I think that probably in the case of most Americans, tasting would be believing.
Herring is common throughout Scandinavia, the Baltic States, Poland, Germany, the Ukraine, the Netherlands, and even the UK, in the form of kippers, bloaters, and bucklings. To make your own herring, the best starting point is the fish itself, freshly-caught and free of any ingredients, vinegar or otherwise.
To get more insight on the herring situation in the United States, I talked to Johanna Kindvall, who besides being an illustrator and an architect in New York City also writes the charming “Kok Blog,” a food blog featuring Swedish food (as well as other cuisines).
She told me that while it’s difficult to find fresh herring, it’s not that hard to find herring that is already pickled or preserved in wine, cream, or oil. She makes both Swedish and Polish-style herring, and she serves them to guests with dark bread, a sharp hard cheese like aged Gouda or the Swedish Västerbotten, boiled eggs, and potatoes.
I’ve heard this before, and Johanna concurs: “To really get the best out of herring you also need a good vodka or akvavit.”
Plain or flavored, the liquor is supposed to bring another dimension of the herring out—like strawberries and champagne, but a hundred times more hard core. I’m trying to convince my family to get over their anti-herring prejudices and try it.
You can pair Johanna’s Akvavit with one of her herring dishes for a taste of Sweden outside of the country… true expat-style.