Fermented Herring Party Prompts Gas Leak Panic

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Ulf Palm/Scanpix/Reuters

A woman picks up a rotten herring with a fork during a surstromming party in Stockholm, Sweden in this picture taken August 17, 1998.

Over the weekend, a gas leak reported in the trendy  Stockholm district of Södermalm, prompted two fire trucks, two police cars and an emergency gas leak team to respond to the scene. But it turned out the outrageously foul odor had nothing to do with natural gas, but was caused by a Swedish delicacy called surströmming — fermented (that is to say, rotted) herring. The dish is celebrated as a traditional autumn dish and has been described as smelling like vinegar tossed with rancid butter and rotten eggs, according to an article on the English-language Swedish news site The Local.

Not everyone is a fan of surströmming. In 2006, major airlines including British Airways and Air France banned customers from enjoying the dish on board. Some apartment blocks in Sweden reportedly prohibit tenants to open the can inside the buildings. And stories of school pranks that call for an open can of the stuff near classroom ventilation intakes have become legend.

Despite the smell, surströmming is the centerpiece of Swedish autumn parties known as surströmmingsskiva. That explains why last Saturday’s false alarm was far from the first one, according to the Stockholm fire department.

Though fermented food doesn’t always get a good rep, some say it has numerous health benefits. It is also important to note that for many people, it is as sumptuous as steak and potatoes. It is also more common than one might think: beer, cheese, sauerkraut, salami, sourdough and soy sauce are all fermented food products, just to name a few. Here are a few other particularly fetid examples that are still fêted around the world.

1. Stinky tofu

Touted as the iconic street food of Taiwan, stinky tofu is simply fermented bean curd. Deep-fried until golden crisp, it’s normally enjoyed with a side of pickled cabbage, which is also fermented. Other methods of cooking it include steaming or stewing. While some say it carries a waft of garbage, others say they find the smell deliciously addictive.

2. Kenkey

A daily staple in West Africa, kenkey sustains people throughout the day. It is fermented corn dough that, when steamed in banana leaves, bring a mouthwatering scent.  Made with cornmeal and vinegar, its taste reportedly resembles sourdough. Here is a recipe.

3. Pulque

Believed to be the world’s oldest alcoholic beverage, pulque is famed for being the scared drink of the Aztecs. It is brewed from maguey plants, which are native in Central Mexico and can take as long as 15 years to mature. It is said to have a sour taste but contain vitamins like biotin, riboflavin and thiamine, according to an article on the United Nations University website.