Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Putrid Swedish Food That Explodes

Back when I lived in San Diego, I worked with a girl from Sweden. She ended up in the United States after she had married a marine who she'd met while they were each living in Paris, France (and, yes, I am friends with quite a few international married couples).

Anyway, she used to talk a lot about how great her beloved homeland was/is and, as most expats do, how delicious the food is. I remember her making quite a few runs to Ikea for the raw ingredients to some old, back-home recipe. Mostly, though, she had quite fond memories of two foods in particular from her childhood. One, which is available in the U.S., was salted-and-chewy black-licorice candy. If you've never had this combination, you'll either love it or hate it. I haven't seen anyone react neutrally to it. The second food is what this story is about.

As with most places I've been, I didn't really know what to expect in terms of Swedish food. Unfortunately for Sweden, I was predisposed to think in terms of what they sell at the Ikea restaurant just like people who have never been to the U.S. think that McDonald's or K.F.C. is what it's all about there.

I was very happily surprised during our first night in Sweden when Lena and Toni took us to have dinner at her mom Karen's house and there wasn't a meatball in sight. Like I wrote about in Part 1 of our trip, her food was super yummy and a great intro to home-style Swedish food. A couple of days later, they took us to a restaurant-museum-adventure-park (yes, adventure park) combo place in a nearby town. Called Svansele, you sit at tables outside (I'm guessing not during the winter, though) and eat barbecued reindeer, moose, fish, and veggies served up by some super friendly and entertaining cooks.

Even though the food is excellent, and worth the relatively-high price, the highlight of the restaurant is the attached multi-large-roomed museum/display of stuffed-and-mounted local wildlife. Each room is themed by a season of the year with matching temperature controls (the winter room is like a walk-in-refrigerator). The animals on display range from the largest local residents like bears and moose to the smallest fish, birds, and mice.

The best part of the restaurant for sure, well after the delish food, was the display showing the various traps created by hunters to catch their meals. It included all sorts of creative methods such as tying a string to a shotgun that's triggered by a the animal trying to remove a piece of food. Excellent!

So, what's this got to do with my friend's other favorite Swedish food? Not much really but I did enjoy the restaurant and museum!

On our last night in town, Lena and Toni had prepared something very special for dinner. It was special enough that we cleaned the gazebo so we could eat outside. How nice, right? Lena and Diana started by cutting up some veggies and other prep and then we all moved outside so Toni could open the cans of Surstromming.

Wait! Why did we need to go outside to open our dinner? Well, we were about to enjoy Surstromming, which is a fermented fish that's a super-trad food in Sweden. The problem is that sometimes the contents of the can explode out when it's opened! Woo-hoo! Exploding food! For some reason, I flashed back to that old urban-legend where Mikey died eating Pop Rocks and Coke...

But, wait! The potentially deadly releasing of the can's contents isn't even the best part of prepping and eating this nutritious super food. No, that honor is held by the incredibly putrid smell that emanates from the newly-opened can. I was beginning to understand why I had to vacuum the dead mosquitoes and other local fauna out of the gazebo that day...

Diana's priceless reaction to her first wiff of our soon-to-be dinner:

Turns out that my Swedish friend from San Diego's second-favorite food is a small, fermented herring fish found in the nearby Baltic Sea that comes in a can. This is how kids in Sweden say "Yummy, Mommy!!! Can I have more???":

In a good-ole Hatfield-and-McCoy's way, one legend credits the beginnings of this Swedish delicacy to some sailors giving their "beloved" Finnish neighbors old, stinky fish as part of a trade. Upon their next visit, the Finns, who are the butt of lots of Swedish jokes, are said to have asked for more of that "delicious fish". Diana and I were definitely in luck, I think.

Lena's recipe for Surstromming, which is eaten right out of the can without any cooking/processing, starts with a Swedish flat bread, a bunch of butter and boiled potatoes that are spread liberally on the bread, and pieces of the peeled and boneless fish:

To this, she adds some fresh dill, sliced tomatoes, and sour cream:

For the terror that arises from the potentially deadly package with the it-makes-you-cry smell, I can definitely say that my friend was right all along. Salty black licorice and putrid fish are both surprisingly delicious and must-not-be-missed Swedish foods. Maybe Ikea still has a thing or two to learn. Just look at these happy campers with their dinner:

Again, a big thanks to Toni and Lena for not only giving us a place to sleep, introducing us to their culture, and putting up with my limitless "why and how-come" questions, but to sharing their lives, family, friends, and exploding rotten fish with us. You guys rock and we miss you!

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