Swedish word of the day: surströmming

In Sweden, there are several words for herring.

Swedish word of the day: surströmming
Your Swedish challenge of the day. Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

Surströmming is the word for ‘fermented herring’, and it’s been a part of traditional (and smelly) Swedish cuisine for centuries. One of the most putrid-smelling foods in the world, eating this delicacy is one of the final frontiers for proving you’ve adapted to the Swedish palate.

It’s a controversial food to say the least, with several airlines banning the carriage of surströmming, and viral challenges where people film their first attempt eating the fish.

The sur means ‘sour’ and relates to the acidic taste. To prepare surströmming, fish caught at the start of the season are preserved with salt to stop them rotting.

The process takes about six months, so the first date on which you can eat surströmming is known as the surströmmingspremiär, traditionally the third Thursday in August. In 2021, that’s August 19th so if you’re reading this on Thursday, happy first day of fermented herring season! 

There are guidelines on how best to eat the dish, the most important of which is to try it outdoors due to the odour. The traditional way to serve it is with onion, sour cream, bread, potatoes and a glass of snaps – not straight out of the can.

Most languages find one word for ‘herring’ is sufficient, but in Sweden there’s a difference between herring caught south of the Kalmar Strait, which are sill, and those caught in the Baltic north of Kalmar, which are strömming.

Is there any point in making this difference?

It’s based on a royal request from the 16th century which established the boundary, but whether the fish are actually different is up for debate. Generally, sill are larger and fattier than strömming, and some research suggests there are slight genetic differences, despite being part of the same species and very closely related.


Jag äter det mesta, till och med surströmming

I eat most things, even fermented herring

För många i Sverige är det en tradition att äta surströmming varje sommar

For many people in Sweden it’s a tradition to eat fermented herring every summer

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Swedish word of the day: oxveckorna

Today's word of the day, oxveckorna, translate literally as "ox weeks", and is used to describe the period roughly between New Year and Easter devoid of public holidays, which leaves you working like an ox.

Swedish word of the day: oxveckorna

There’s no exact definition of how many weeks oxveckorna refers to, and it used to also refer to similar holiday-free periods during the autumn or following midsummer.

Swedens’ most recent public holiday or röd dag fell on January 6th, trettondag jul, and the next one won’t be until Good Friday, which falls on April 7th this year, giving Swedes a four-month period without a public holiday.

In addition to this, the fun and lights of Christmas are over, so Swedes – especially in the north of the country – have months of slogging through bad weather and dark days with no celebrations to lighten the mood until Easter.

This might be one of the reasons so many people take sportlov off around mid-February to escape to the ski slopes.

But where does the term come from? 

In Sweden’s old agricultural society, farmers weren’t lucky enough to have the 25 days of annual leave Swedish workers expect today, so public holidays were one of the few chances for a break from hard, physical labour. The period after Christmas, devoid of public holidays, was especially difficult, as farmers had to work through the dark, cold months, “like an ox”.

It was also the time of year where farmers used oxen to plough their fields in preparation for sowing crops in spring.

The period between midsummer and Christmas was equally difficult, as it covers the busy harvest period, without the motivation of seeing the light return and the weather improve to keep you going. 

Nowadays, many Swedes escaped oxveckorna by getting on the nearest plane and heading to Thailand for most of January. Not everyone can afford this luxury, but planning a couple of days of annual leave for this period might help if you’re struggling.

Example sentences:

En kort promenad i vinterljuset kan lätta upp under oxveckorna.

A short walk in the winter light can help during the ox weeks.

Jag hatar verkligen oxveckorna, allt känns så segt och tungt och det är så långt till våren.

I really hate the ox weeks, everything feels so difficult and heavy and spring is so far away.

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