I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
The recipe alone tells you most of what you need to know. Young, newly caught Baltic Sea herring are soaked in brine in a barrel. After a couple of days, the heads and innards of the fish are removed and the rest is returned to the briny solution. Then they are left to “cook” in the summer sun for two to three months.
While this process is taking place, Ben Schott says it’s important to stay upwind of the barrels: “During this time, the fish decompose, producing a tremendous quantity of vile, pungent gas. The resulting ‘delicacy’ smells very, very bad indeed.” The smell has been described as like “eggs rotting in open sewage drains.” It’s a pong that could fell a team of Clydesdales miles downwind, yet, for many Swedes, it’s a culinary delight.
But they haven’t rotted enough yet for the cognoscenti, so they are transferred to sealed tins to continue decaying. The lids start to bulge with the build up of gasses—a sign that it’s time for lunch, although in most countries, public health officials would say it’s time to bin the wretched thing.
Traditionally, it is eaten outdoors so the cloying stench doesn’t hang around the house for days. Beer, vodka, and aquavit are recommended accompanying tipples.
Even Sweden’s official tourist information website is a bit ambivalent: “Never has rotten fish smelled so bad but tasted so good.” If it’s all the same to the good Swedish people, most of the rest of us will take a pass.
2. Doenjang (Soybean Paste)
Koreans like to make a stew using doenjang, which is fermented soybeans. For those who like the acrid scent of ammonia (and who doesn’t?), this is a must main course. The doenjang is mixed with a simmering pot of mushrooms, potatoes, radish, squash and perhaps some seafood. (Adding surströmming to the stew is not advised; the likely resulting explosion could cause serious damage to property and people).
3. Petai Beans
A good side for doenjang stew might be petai beans. They give off a perfume that has been likened to methane gas. And, it doesn’t end there. Petai beans are the food that keeps on giving. It creates breath that even a skunk might find offensive; other body waste products are similarly affected, although, in the usual course of things, it’s only the eater that benefits from this.
4. Stinking Bishop Cheese
There’s a bit of a battle going on in the murky underworld of cheese-making to decide who produces the most malodorous variety. France is, of course, a perennial contender, but a challenger emerged in May 2009. That’s when Stinking Bishop Cheese was voted Britain’s Smelliest Cheese by judges at The Royal Bath and West Show.
This noisome product gets its zesty aroma from being washed in fermented pear juice. It’s said to be delicious but with a reek that resembles a rugby club change room. Raymond Hook of The Daily Meal was much kinder when it came to flavour: “It has strong flavours of moist hay and wilting flowers.”
British jingoism aside, this beast seems unlikely to knock French cheeses off their perch.
5. Vieux Boulogne
Vieux Boulogne won (if that’s the right word) a competition in 2004 as the cheese with the biggest whiff. Scientists at Cranfield University, England, used 19 human testers and one “electronic nose” to determine who got the gold medal.
Vieux Boulogne is a cow’s milk product that gets its pungency from being washed in beer as it matures. How bad is its bouquet? The BBC has an answer: “It even beat Epoisses de Bourgogne, a cheese so smelly it is banned from being taken on public transport in its native France.”
6. Casu Marzu
Casu Marzu cheese from Sardinia ranks high on the stench meter doubtless due to its stomach-churning production method. Casu Marzu means rotten cheese, and it comes by its name honestly. It’s made from sheep’s milk that is then exposed to cheese flies that obligingly lay their eggs in it. The eggs hatch into maggots that feed on the cheese and get our old friend fermentation worked up.
Now it’s ready for eating, as long as the maggots are still moving. If they’re dead, it’s a sign the cheese has gone off. In this condition, it’s said to create a burn in the mouth rather than a flavour.
The European Union has banned the sale of Casu Marzu. Now, why would the bureaucrats cheat cheese lovers out of such a delectable treat?
Apparently, those little grub critters might survive the attack of stomach acid and settle down to a new home in the intestines to raise families. They can burrow through intestinal walls, and that leads to vomiting, bloody diarrhea, and stomach pain.
Absolute nonsense, say the Sardinians. Just the same, pass the Cheddar, please.
7. Stinking Toe Fruit
Had enough yet? Surely, there’s room for some dessert.
Might we suggest stinking toe fruit, which masquerades under the entirely misleading name of locust when not growing in Jamaica. It looks like a large brown toe and its name is descriptive of its scent. Some extravagant claims are made about this sweet fruit’s medicinal powers.
8. Durian Fruit
Durian fruit is a bit niffy; okay, it’s a lot niffy. It’s a spiky fruit that grows in Southeast Asia, and one of its fans, Lionel Bauer, writes that, “Those who like durian typically regard it as the king of fruit.”
However, Bauer does rather gloss over the fruit’s major drawback by observing that “durians have a strong smell and a unique taste.” Strong smell Mr. Bauer? It’s described by those not so enamoured as similar to rotting flesh or putrid garbage.
9. Baby Mice Wine
Of course, if you can get past the stink of the durian, you’ll want something to help swill it down. A good pairing might be baby mice wine. It’s known as a health tonic in Korea and China, although the mice have a different point of view.
Tiny little rodents, no more than three days old, are drowned in bottles of rice wine. They are left to ferment for a year and then the cork is pulled. Cheers.
- Two billion people consume insects regularly; few of them live in the West. The Cantonese have a saying: “Any animal whose back faces the Sun can be eaten.” By that definition, grubs and bugs are included in the diet.
- In the Philippines, balut has a high yuck factor for those not accustomed to it. Take a fertilized duck egg and incubate it for 18 days. By then, the embryo is nearly fully developed. Boil the egg containing the briefly alive duckling and you’ve got a nice, crunchy, little bit feathery snack.
“Sweden’s Stinky Tradition.” Lola Akinmade Akerstrom, Lonely Planet, June 2012.
“Smelly Korean Food - Soybean Paste Stew.”
“The Stink Bean – A Little Smelly, A Lot of Flavour.” Mark Wiens, Migrationology, September 4th, 2012.
“The 6 Smelliest Cheeses in the World.” Raymond Hook, The Daily Meal, August 22, 2014.
“World’s Smelliest Cheese Named.” BBC News, November 26, 2004.
“Casu Marzu: World’s Most Dangerous Cheese?” Diane Bobis, I Love Cheese, November 23, 2013.
“Stinking Toe Juice.” Xavier Murphy, Jamaicans.com, 2012.
“Penang, Malaysia, and Other Places Where to Eat the Best Durians.”Lionel Bauer, Durian.net, 2013.
“Schott’s Food and Drink Miscellany.” Ben Schott, Bloomsbury, 2003.
© 2016 Rupert Taylor
Cecil Kenmill from Osaka, Japan on February 09, 2019:
I'm surprised natto isn't on your list. It's a Japanese dish. Basically, it's fermented soy beans. Some people love it but some run away screaming. I'm not sure it's as strong as the Baltic fish but it took me a while to get used to. Anyway, great article!
Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on December 15, 2017:
Thank you Britt. Blush, blush, blush. I like the word "chortle," you don't see it much these days.
Britt Bogan on December 14, 2017:
Rupert, no one's articles make me chortle quite as frequently as yours do. I love your sense of humor.