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The clean, fresh air of Scandinavia
December 2, 2012 6:49 AM   Subscribe

The BBC explore the olfactory delights of rakfisk, "trout sprinkled with salt and fermented in water for up to a year." But is it as smelly as Surströmming, fermented Baltic Herring from neighboring Sweden, or as extreme as the Icelandic Hákarl, basking shark buried in a hole and fermented for several months and tasting "similar to very strong cheese slathered in ammonia"?

Other foods with an odor turned up to eleven are listed by College Humor, Just Eat, Knoji and Open Journey.
posted by Wordshore (52 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
I am very glad that the internets have not yet invented Smell-O-Vision.
posted by elizardbits at 7:02 AM on December 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


I used to like hákarl a lot when I was a kid. If served right it's not really disgusting at all. Usually it's served straight from the freezer at which point the smell is very weak but its taste is still pretty potent. For the full on experience you wash it down with brennivín, which is a caraway seed flavored schnaps (this I didn't do as a kid). It's a tasty combo, though it's an acquired taste. But then, so is coffee. That said, I only eat shark like maybe once a year these days, if that. Heck, the same goes for brennivín. These are things that you don't come across that often in modern Iceland.

Actually, if you want to drink brennvín without the shark experience, it goes very well with carrots.
posted by Kattullus at 7:06 AM on December 2, 2012 [9 favorites]


Oh goodness, I had to stop watching when they started making hákarl brownies. It was bad enough when that guy was vomiting up blood (not his own, though), but that's just the worst idea. Someone might die.
posted by Kattullus at 7:18 AM on December 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


Carrots??? Brændevin is for washing down herring or fatty pork dishes.
posted by brokkr at 7:18 AM on December 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


Mandatory: Is the American really going to eat lutefisk?
posted by lalochezia at 7:18 AM on December 2, 2012 [10 favorites]


Lesson I learned as a child: The fact that something will fit in your mouth is not reason enough to put it there.
posted by HuronBob at 7:20 AM on December 2, 2012 [6 favorites]


Remembering our family get togethers around this time of year, what you said just brought back horrible memories.

(On preview, am referring to lalochezia)
posted by hal9k at 7:24 AM on December 2, 2012 [3 favorites]


I was never that much into Surströmming as a kid, but I really miss it now that I can't really get it. Traveling with it in a suitcase across the Atlantic might be a bad idea... But you can't just eat it out of the can - on a flatbread, with some potatoes and onions and a little bit of sour cream is divine.

Working in the canning factory, though. Man your hands smell bad ALL the time from the brine.
posted by gemmy at 7:34 AM on December 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'll be traveling to Iceland next summer, and I'm still debating whether or not I'll try hákarl... I'll eat pretty much anything, but I've had shark that wasn't processed correctly and tasted pretty strongly of ammonia, and I'm guessing that hákarl is 1000x stronger. Ammonia is not a yummy taste/smell.
posted by Huck500 at 7:37 AM on December 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


On Wisconsin and lutefisk.
posted by Wordshore at 7:40 AM on December 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


Locals consider it unsafe to eat casu marzu once the larvae have died, so it is served while the translucent white worms, about one-third of an inch long, are still squiggling. Some people clear the maggots from the cheese before consuming it; others do not. Those who leave the maggots may have to cover the cheese with their hands—when disturbed, the maggots can jump up to six inches.

yum
posted by pyramid termite at 7:41 AM on December 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


Every culture has a dish so wonderful they can only stand to eat it once a year.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 7:55 AM on December 2, 2012 [6 favorites]


It's not exactly rotten shark, but I love telling people about how the particular smell of a ripe French Camembert cheese comes from ammonia and another chemical called cadaverine, a chemical that produces the unique scent common to putrefied flesh, and semen.

In Germany it's common to find a Danish cheese called Tilsiter right next to the mild gouda and edam. Unlike gouda and edam, Tilister smells like armpits, gym socks, or toe jam. It smells gross in a remarkably human way, and the texture is subtly slimy. It will stink up your refrigerator like nothing else.

There is no warning on the package that this will happen. You just have to know.
posted by sixohsix at 7:56 AM on December 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


Here's a video of a cute kid eating harkarl if bros eating it and hurling blood isn't your thing.
posted by carsonb at 8:00 AM on December 2, 2012 [3 favorites]


CheeseDigestsAll: Every culture has a dish so wonderful they can only stand to eat it once a year.

Iceland has a few of those, but I wouldn't put hákarl in that category. Served right it's not foul at all. You may not like the taste, but it won't cause you to vomit.

Fermented skate, however, is just the worst.
posted by Kattullus at 8:29 AM on December 2, 2012


For the full on experience you wash it down with brennivín, which is a caraway seed flavored schnaps

This is like saying in order to deal with the pain of being stabbed in the stomach you should let someone punch you in the face immediately after.
posted by elizardbits at 8:34 AM on December 2, 2012 [5 favorites]


It's more like someone putting a small ice cube in their mouth before going down on you. Not everyone's gonna like it, but some people will really like it.
posted by Kattullus at 8:42 AM on December 2, 2012 [4 favorites]


We have very different ideas of what constitutes normal mealtime behavior I think.

iceland sounds like fun
posted by elizardbits at 8:44 AM on December 2, 2012 [11 favorites]


Here in North Dakota, where the sons and daughters of Scandinavian farmers run wild, church Lutefisk dinners are still a big deal. I avoid the stuff like the plague but my dad could eat it, and talk about it, for days on end. Let me tell you, you work at one of these suppers for a Sunday afternoon/evening, you reek of this shit like you wouldn't believe. My wife would make me undress outside, throw all my clothes into the washer, and run straight to the shower. Takes a lot of shampoo to get the stench out of the hair.
posted by Ber at 8:56 AM on December 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


What is it about Scandinavians and rotten fish?

"Ha, ho, Lars won't eat this, I bet you all. Much entertainment for frozen months of winter!"
posted by Curious Artificer at 9:20 AM on December 2, 2012 [4 favorites]


I wonder if a little nước mắm would improve it...
posted by Kirth Gerson at 9:21 AM on December 2, 2012 [3 favorites]


What is it about Scandinavians and rotten fish?

It wasn't just the Scandinavians.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 9:31 AM on December 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


What is it about Scandinavians and rotten fish?

There's like 6 hours of sun here in the winter, we get bored. And then eat rotten fish!

That said, surströmming can be really tasty, if you can get past the chemical weapon that is the stink of a newly opened can.
posted by gkhan at 10:09 AM on December 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


Lutefisk can be pretty good, so some of this stuff might be as well. It melts in your mouth. I think some of the connective tissue in the fish has dissolved.
posted by Area Man at 10:39 AM on December 2, 2012


Lutefisk is terrible enough. My mother made some for us kids. The cat wouldn't even eat it. I thought it was terrible. Never, ever inflicted it on my kids. For which they should thank me.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 10:40 AM on December 2, 2012


It's not my ethnic food, but I grew up in a Scandinavian-influenced area and had lutefisk as few times as a kid. It's only kind of icky. My Norwegian friend tells me that nobody likes lutefisk for itself, but for the sauces you put on it.
posted by hattifattener at 10:55 AM on December 2, 2012


Not quite on the same level, but I am a big fan of Gentleman's Relish, AKA 'Patum Peperium" a secret recipe relish made from anchovies. I've never met anyone else who can tolerate the smell, let alone enjoy it as much as I do!
posted by WastedTruth at 11:06 AM on December 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


So many of these dishes seem to be driven by the difficulty, until recently, in keeping foods fresh. Me, I'm going to go give my refrigerator a big hug.
posted by benito.strauss at 11:09 AM on December 2, 2012 [6 favorites]


I think the prevalence of really old rotten fish recipes throughout many cultures just goes to show us how terrible the world was before MSG.
posted by elizardbits at 11:12 AM on December 2, 2012



DECEMBER: 2010
A coworker leaves a DIY Lutefisk kit sealed in a bucket under her desk, next to a space heater.
It's forgotten about until the following Spring.

APRIL: 2011
The bucket is opened.

posted by nathan_teske at 11:15 AM on December 2, 2012 [5 favorites]


I assume a similar event is what wiped out the dinosaurs.
posted by elizardbits at 11:16 AM on December 2, 2012


We had candy made with ammonium when I was a child. Apparently, the EU forbid it for health reasons. Very sad.
posted by mumimor at 12:17 PM on December 2, 2012


Candy with ammonium chloride are sold in all the Nordic countries, several which are EU members, muminor. I think that the lack of this kind of candy elsewhere is more due to it being an acquired taste.
posted by Harald74 at 12:23 PM on December 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


So many of these dishes seem to be driven by the difficulty, until recently, in keeping foods fresh.

I think most Norwegian dishes come from this. Ingredients are smoked, salted, dried, cured, conserved etc etc. And cheese is a way to keep milk for longer.
posted by Harald74 at 12:25 PM on December 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


That College Humour link has got rollmops in the list. I'm puzzled - do they have them confused with something else, or am I really that desensitized? To me, they smell like a delicious, vinegary onion pickle. Can you even smell the fish over the minced onion?
posted by ninazer0 at 1:01 PM on December 2, 2012


Lutefisk? Rakfisk? They forgot smalahove.
posted by iviken at 1:17 PM on December 2, 2012


Things like this, especially the maggotty cheese, remind me that our ancestors probably were scavengers at the beginning and would eat anything that didn't kill them. But in a world full of available delicious things to eat, I can't see the appeal.
posted by emjaybee at 1:41 PM on December 2, 2012


This has nothing to do with scavenging and everything to do with the lack of ubiquitous cooling. How would you scavenge a cheese or a soap-soaked cod? Most of these dishes require advanced understanding of degenerative organic processes.
posted by brokkr at 1:44 PM on December 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


Here's one more stinky aromatic fermented fish for the list. Funazushi is a barbarism delicacy from the Lake Biwa area of Japan. Basically, you gut some lake carp, stuff them with salt, and ferment them in a barrel of rice for about three years. Here is a video of prepping the fish that I shot at Kitashina a couple of years ago. Warning: much squealing with glee/terror from some witnesses. Sadly, this restaurant that had been in operation for something like 400 years is now out of business.

I loved the funazushi I had on that trip to Shiga. And, the locals laughed secretly were amazed that I would eat it. I kept a packet of the fermented rice in the fridge for quite a while, doling out the foul precious substance bit by bit. Later tried some from a department store in Tokyo--not so good. It pays to get highest quality decomposed, nasty old traditionally crafted fermented fish you can. Goes nicely with a bit of sake.

Note: do not open left over funazushi for a snack on your way home on the Shinkansen back from Shiga.
posted by Gotanda at 3:20 PM on December 2, 2012 [4 favorites]


Here is a video of food genius Harold McGee relishing some surströmming in a park. "Once it gets in your mouth, the babyshit smell goes away."
posted by Eater at 3:35 PM on December 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


This has nothing to do with scavenging and everything to do with the lack of ubiquitous cooling. How would you scavenge a cheese or a soap-soaked cod? Most of these dishes require advanced understanding of degenerative organic processes.

Indeed. And a scavenger, better than anyone, learns to tell when a rotting bit of foodstuff is still safe to eat, and when it's not. Or actually, a scavenger/starvation mindset is what it takes to be willing to eat something that smells like it's dangerously decomposed and might kill you, painfully.

Maybe a lot of us carry genes that allow us to blithely eat strongly-fermented, rotted foods because the ones who couldn't died out during famines. I have no idea. And mostly I find it interesting that we still eat them when we don't have to.
posted by emjaybee at 3:55 PM on December 2, 2012


You guys do know about the Lutefisk Cube, right? It's a magic box that's bigger on the inside than the outside, which makes it great for storing things, except they all turn into lutefisk.
posted by 23 at 4:46 PM on December 2, 2012


cf. 홍어회
posted by bardic at 8:08 PM on December 2, 2012


Lutefisk is horrid. It is a cruel joke that Norwegians play on themselves. Do not, I repeat, do not fall for it. I did once, and I lived to regret it.
posted by Mental Wimp at 8:42 PM on December 2, 2012


I love both rakfisk and lutefisk, but am Norwegian, so my opinion won't sway anyone.

Personally, I think the taste of both lutefisk and rakfisk as served in restaurants have become weaker in recent years. It is like they make it for those who really don't enjoy it, rather than for us who appreciate the taste.
posted by magnusbe at 9:07 PM on December 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


One cannot discuss smelly foods without mentioning the pungent death of shrimp paste, a magical ingredient that lends rich flavor to dishes so long as you get it out of the jar and into the pot without breathing in.
posted by Hollywood Upstairs Medical College at 9:21 PM on December 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


Oh dear god, high-quality shrimp paste is one of "my favourite thingsTM." A little goes a long way especially when stir frying Asian leafy/stem-ey vegetables. A little bit in a Chinese pork pie is amazing. But it is far from being an universal condiment/flavouring.

There's a very specialty product where semi-mature ovaries (?) from prawns (a reddish mass collecting on the ventral base of the head carapace) are collected and fermented. All of the good flavours and textures and more without being excessively "stinky," although still somewhat strongly smelling, but not unpleasantly so.

It's absolutely amazing stuff and likely not legal to harvest in North America (no prawn with roe is allowed to be harvested, afaik, although how that's done outside of seasonal embargoes, I have no idea - and this is pre-roe forming, before fertilized roe are located beneath the body protected by the legs).

I've heard about these magical Scandinavian fermented seafood products but have never had the opportunity to try. Are there any reliable mail order places that ship to Canada where the product is at least good-above average?
posted by porpoise at 11:04 PM on December 2, 2012


I am amazed that nobody here has mentioned vobla. Russians - and not just a few of them, all of them - eat brined, sun dried whole freshwater fish - perchy things called Caspian roach but also carp, pike, anything that swims. You go to any market and they sell these big dried bony fish that people break into strips and chew with beer. Of course we had to try it. It was like trying to pick bits of desicated meat out of a hairbrush and wash it down with Russian beer. Even my Japanese partner, who can pretty much eat anything that swims - had a hard time with vobla. Our Russian friends thought we were sort of odd - afraid of something as normal as vobla?
posted by zaelic at 7:43 AM on December 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


Also now I am wondering about the possible connection between the horrors of hakarl and the babyeating of Grýla.
posted by elizardbits at 9:04 AM on December 3, 2012


Here's a video of a cute kid eating harkarl if bros eating it and hurling blood isn't your thing.

That site is awesome and deserves to be an FPP itself if it hasn't been already.
posted by sevenyearlurk at 11:52 AM on December 3, 2012


And now I see it was.
posted by sevenyearlurk at 11:57 AM on December 3, 2012


porpoise, here you can order surströmming.

Do not open inside!
posted by magnusbe at 7:14 PM on December 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


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