01 October 2012

Sill and Strömming

From a food cart window beside Stockholm's harbor, this man served us one of Sweden's true treats. Nystekt Strömming is a little place, with a simple name - it literally translates to "freshly fried herring."  We've eaten a lot of the stuff in Sweden, Norway and Iceland... not just fried, but also cured, pickled and slathered with sauce.  Along the coastline of these northern waters, herring is a staple.  We love it.
The Swedes differentiate between sill - herring caught in the North Sea, south of Kalmar - and strömming - fished in the Baltic north of Kalmar, and slightly smaller.  They're both herring, and essentially the same species, but to locals they're as distinct as bratwurst and frankfurter.
The Swedish taste for preserved herring tends towards sweetness.  Every supermarket carries a variety of jarred sill packed in dill sauce, mustard, curry, white cream, onion, vinegar or even berries.  The main curing agent in these seems to be sugar, and they can be cloying or even syrupy.  We're fond of the herrings in senap (mustard), but to be really palatable in a sandwich it has to be tempered by other ingredients.
The consistency of this jarred stuff, on the other hand, is near perfect for a picnic.  Delicate-fleshed, but still toothsome, it's cured without cooking - the scales flash silver, the meat is pink.  On dense, dark bread, with slices of Herrgårdsost cheese, it can be delicious. At Syltkrukan, the "jam pot," we had "toasts" of egg and sill with strong cups of coffee.  It's was great for a light lunch, but Swedes often like more substance with their strömming.
On a red-painted wharfside on the northeastern coast, in the pretty town of Hudiksvall, we found out how heavy a herring lunch can feel.  Möljens - a snack stand that serves ice cream and hotdogs in addition to its famous fishes - is an institution here, and was reasonably busy on Sunday afternoon.  They have a short list of strömming preparations, all involving pre-made patties of breaded fish.  Both the "strömmingburgare" and the strömming tunnbröd wrap (tunnbröd is a kind of semi-porous flatbread) were slathered with tangy tartare sauce.  The wrap was weighed down with several pounds of mashed potato.  Eating it by the waterside, with ducks paddling around waiting for the scraps, we were reminded of New England fish filet sandwiches.  The meal was a simple, filling pleasure, but we couldn't taste much of the herring.  Flaking it apart, though, revealed real fish.  These were actual filets, not processed white mush.
Simpler and more elegant, this plate-sized cracker from a gatukök ("street kitchen," or food cart) in Härnösand was fortifying enough on a rainy day.  The man who made it was especially proud of his dill and cream sauce.  As we stood and waited, we could hear strömming crackling and spitting in the pan.  Some young Swedes stood by with their mother, waiting for their own fishy treats.
It's occurred to us before how much of a divide the Atlantic makes in people's taste for fish.  From Lithuanian restaurants to Estonian ferries, Dutch beaches to the streets of Brussels, herring is ubiquitous.  In America?  It's almost unknown.  It's a shame, really, because the little creatures are about the perfect food.  Raw, tinned, brined, fried, smoked... there's no real cut, when you look at a herring you see what you're going to eat.  And, even if the taste is a little mild, it's also a great compliment to its environmental flavors.  What other fish is so easily translatable from one preparation to another?
On a sidewalk corner of Slussen, where Stockholm's traffic, people and water come together at a narrow bridge, Nystekt Strömming dishes up some of Sweden's finest and most elemental street food.
In Scandinavia, this is fast food.  Rebecca had a demure knäckis - two lightly fried filets on knäckerbröd (like Wasa) with onions and cucumbers piled on top.  My fish came with mashed potato, lingonberry jam, red onion and beets.  The fish was fried so gently that it was coming apart under its own weight.  There was a full moon rising over Stockholm's harbor.  We sat at a makeshift outdoor table and watched ferries rock in the water, people rush by and the sky darken.  The fish was too hot to eat at first, and smelled of salt and seaside.

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