Vegan surströmming, or fermented herring (Sweden)

Sweden is one of the largest countries in Europe, located in Scandinavia, in Northern Europe. A whopping 65 % of the land area is covered by forests, which explains the low population density. There are also plenty of lakes and some mountains. A constitutional monarchy led by a king, it ranks very high in democracy, equality, human development and other such indices. It has mostly managed to avoid wars since the 19th century, remaining officially neutral in both world wars (though it helped several of its neighbouring countries in WWII). It is a part of EU, but not the Eurozone. Nowadays Sweden is perhaps best known for being the origin of IKEA (in fact owned by the Dutch), the band ABBA (and many other artists), the Pirate Bay/Pirate Party, as well as quite a few authors, including seven Nobel prize winners, children’s author Astrid Lindgren and bestseller king Stieg Larsson.

The Swedish cuisine has traditionally built on meat, seafood (especially herring and salmon), potatoes and various types of bread, with some dairy products thrown in. Rutabaga used to be a popular root vegetable which the Brits even call “Swede”. Spices aren’t used much, though fresh dill and chives are popular in summer dishes. Pea soup served with mustard and followed by pancake is a traditional Thursday meal (as in Finland). Swedish meatballs are probably the most famous Swedish dish, not that unusual as far as meatballs go, but traditionally served with (mashed) potatoes, gravy and lingonberry jam. (Wild) berries in general are important, often served as thick dessert soups like bilberry soup. There is also a tradition of various sweet buns, pastries, cakes and cookies, enjoyed with coffee. Swedes drink a lot of both milk and coffee. There are also several traditional candies, most of them flavored with peppermint or salty licorice.

Surströmming (literally “sour herring”) is a fermented (essentially rotten) herring product which smells very putrid. Like really, utterly horrible. Even as a kid in Finland I heard stories of surströmming cans exploding (from the fermentation gases building up) rendering the house permanently uninhabitable. Some airlines banned surströmming cans a few years ago. According to Wikipedia, German food critic and author Wolfgang Fassbender wrote that “the biggest challenge when eating surströmming is to vomit only after the first bite, as opposed to before.” And that’s not a hyperbole – see YouTube for proof (you were warned). Truly a dish worth veganizing, right? Sadly(?) this is just an April Fools joke. (However, the existence of surströmming nor the claims made about it in this passage are not jokes!) Stinky tofu and natto may be the closest vegan equivalents to surströmming, though much less nauseating.

Gravlax is salmon prepared by salt-curing (originally also mildly fermented), which results in a very salty, dense and fairly slimy product, which some people love and others hate. It is traditionally served on e.g. Christmas and also popular in Finland. Dehydrating watermelon became trendy a few years ago. You either marinate the melon in a salty brine/marinade and only dehydrate it a bit to get a juicy product, or dehydrate it all the way for “jerky” (not surprisingly with very low yields). Both are quite tasty, IMO, and good ways to use the watermelon you bought and disappointingly turned out not at all sweet. When I experimented with dehydrating watermelon I immediately thought the end-product resembled gravlax in texture and appearance, so I set out to develop a version. Of course you won’t get a perfect mock fish out of a fruit, but I found my results intriguing. (The surströmming is an April fools joke, but this recipe is not.) You can replace the seaweeds with other strongly sea-flavoured types.

Vegan gravlax

Vegan gravlax

1 pound/450 g red watermelon (preferably not very sweet)
1/4 cup/0.6 dl water
1 tbsp nori flakes or finely chopped nori sheets
1 tbsp dried dulse (a seaweed)
1 heaping tsp salt
2 tbsp dark (=very salty) soy sauce
2 tsp fresh lemon juice
(1 tsp chopped dill)

Heat the water until boiling and dissolve the seasonings in it. Let soak (and cool) for a while, then strain out the seaweeds. Cut the watermelon into chunks a little less than 1 inch thick. Remember it will shrink down a lot. If it has seeds, remove as many as you can without turning the flesh into a mush. Drain/pat the fruit down to remove excess liquid. Place in a ziplock bag with the marinade and refrigerate for a few hours, turning the bag over a few times to make sure all the melon is covered.

Place in the dehydrator (depending on the type you may want to place some parchment paper underneath) or in the oven on the lowest setting, e.g. 50C with the door open. Dehydrate for a few hours, turning once, until it has shrunk down quite a bit and feels dense and slimy, but not in any way dried out. Serve cold with bread. The bread in the picture is knäckebröd, a Swedish rye crispbread.

2 Responses to “Vegan surströmming, or fermented herring (Sweden)”

  1. 1

    No tuo on takuulla parempi kuin se oikea surströmming,jonka haju on ihan kamala!

  2. 2

    Unohtui mainita että ihana ohje,,kiitos!


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