Surströmming is an ostensible “delicacy” common to northern Sweden. Referred to as “fermented* or “soured” herring, it is made by putting fresh caught fish in barrels to sit for a couple months, with just enough salt added to suppress the more nasty varieties of bacteria that would propagate in the slurry, otherwise. After two months, the fish is transferred to cans where the “fermentation” process continues, often causing the can to swell (which we in the U.S. would equate with the presence of botulism).
The swelling results from the production of carbon dioxide gas through the action of Haloanaerobium , a species of bacterium which feeds upon the fish.
The fish has such a foul odor that it is often opened and consumed out-of-doors. The smell results from the following compounds, produced during the “fermentation” period, which also add to the “complex” flavor of the product:
propionic acid: pungent/acrid quality
butyric acid: rancid-butter
hydrogen sulfide: rotten-eggs
acetic acid: vinegar-like
*Not accurate. The process of fermentation refers specifically to the biological action of organisms breaking down carbohydrates (as in grains, fruits, etc.). The processes which occur in animal products (which contain almost no carbohydrate) are properly called “putrefaction” and “rancidification.” It may be that purveyors of putrid, rancid flesh products adopted the term “fermentation” because 1.) The process superficially resembles the process of fermenting carbohydrates 2.) Because “fermented” sounds less noxious than “putrid” and “rancid.”
Fish malodor syndrome causes people to have a certain piscine aroma.
Americans are obsessed with smelling good, spending billions each year on perfumes, colognes and deodorant. But for some rare individuals, no amount of sprayed, lathered, splashed or rolled-on fragrance can do the trick; their body odor is in their genes.
Fish malodor syndrome — trimethylaminuria, or TMAU — is caused by the malfunction of an enzyme that breaks down the amino acid trimethylamine, or TMA, the same compound that makes decomposing fish smell fishy. When TMA builds up in the body, it gets excreted in urine, sweat and breath, resulting in a fishy miasma….
“When I was going to college in Hawaii, one of my classmates in an art class was a Vietnam vet. He told me that when they’d kill an NVA or Viet Cong soldier it could take up to a day and a half before the body would start to stink because they lived on a healthy diet of fish and rice. The dead body of an American soldier on the other hand–with our shitty diet of fats and processed meats (worse even because they were eating the canned c-ration version)–would usually start stinking after just a few hours in the heat of the jungle.”
“Another thing he told me was that South Korea had men in the field over there as well, and because my friend with his Hawaiian background was used to a similar diet of rice and fish and kim-chee (talk about a fucking stink!) he was always happy when they were paired up alongside a unit of South Koreans and he could trade rations with them.”
“That plus the fact that the South Koreans hardly ever got attacked, as they had a reputation for ferocity when angered that included their furious dismemberment of dead enemy soldiers.”
“Nobody wants their dead body cut into little pieces and smeared on the trees.”
Have a stinky anecdote or factoid that you would like to share? Send contributions to email@example.com. Please specify whether you wish to be “named,” or not, and what screen-name to use if you do wish to be named. Also, if you include the URL to your blog or website, I’ll link back to you from the post.