This is a story about how something truly incredible happened while I was in Stockholm: I said out loud "Wow, herring is good!!!". And I meant it. It wasn't one of those "Wow, I really love this sweater Aunt Mary," sort of things. I meant it. From the bottom of my stomach. It all begun on Saturday morning, as my friend the architect and I were strolling through the streets of Stockholm. Going to Stockholm and not eating herring, he said, was just plain crazy. Like going to Philadelphia and not eating a cheesesteak crazy? Yes. Like going Milano and not ordering risotto? Yes. You get the idea. He shamed me into thinking that had I not tried the damn herring my Stockholm experience would have been sort of flawed and meaningless. I cringed inside, but looked up what the best place for herring is in Stockholm. We were in luck. It's a small street side cart called Nystekt Strömming, which literally means 'freshly fried herring', an unassuming tin box located right after the bridge that connects Gamla Stan (the Old Town) to Sodermalm (the 'hip' part of town) right outside the Slossen metro station. I cringed even more because that was exactly where we were headed anyway, so my chances of escaping the dreaded herring were slim to none. "Weren't you a food writer? Aren't you supposed to like everything?" Sure I was a food writer for years. As for the liking everything part, there are very few things I don't like, herring being one of them, and since I worked in Florida I could always safely assume that herring would not show up on my plate unexpected.
The thing is I don't hate herring just because. I wasn't being a
child about it. I had tried herring before. Twice. And hated it both times. The first time was in 1991, while traveling with sled dogs a hundred kilometers north of the Arctic Circle in Finland. Everything was magical about that vacation. Everything except breakfast which was, you guessed, smoked herring. I was ten and I was horrified.
The second time a few years later, around 2000 I would say, when my palate had greatly improved and so had my open mind-ness. That time I picked the wrong the place, so it was entirely my fault. I was in the outskirts of Milano, looking like a madwoman for a new desk lamp at Ikea. You can imagine the rest. They had one of those tasting stations where some lady from Southern Italy, dressed in a ridiculous Viking costume and sporting and even more ridiculous fake Swedish accent, was giving away bites of brown bread topped with fried herring , onion and dilled mustard. I was famished —I was 19, I was always famished— so I grabbed a bite, chewed on it and here I have to give credit to my mother who taught me some manners, I swallowed it. It was bad. It was gross. Everything about it was wrong. The bread was hard on the edges and soggy in the middle. The herring was chewy and fishy. Even the dilled mustard, which is one of my favorite dressings in the world, was... bland. How do you make bland mustard, I ask you? Maybe it was diluted. Maybe it was old. Still, it let all the fishy flavor of the herring shine through. At that moment, while holding my $9 lamp in one hand and with a disgusted look on my face, I swore herring off my list of things to try again forever. Or so I thought.
Saturday afternoon in 18 degree weather and a fast approaching sunset, I found myself at Nystekt, facing my archenemy, the herring. The place had no menu, just a list of six or seven different fried herring sandwiches, all written in Swedish, so we observed what locals were doing for a couple of minutes and, other than a guy ordering a giant herring burger, everyone else seemed to go for something called skaning, an open-face sandwich that didn't look too intimidating. At this point, I must confess, I still wasn't sure I was going to try it. But once I saw the sandwich and once I realized the sun had gone behind the building and I was freezing, i decided it was time to give herring another try. And I am so glad I did. That sandwich, that herring, were heavenly. The rye bread was toasted just right, not too hard nor to soggy, he herring itself was crisp fried and, well, not fishy at all. It tasted like freshly caught, well seasoned, flesh fried fish. The red onions, spicy mustard and abundant fresh dill on top gave the sandwich that extra kick, bringing it from being a good sandwich to an amazing one. So I have to thank Stockholm, and my friend the architect of course, for making me get over my irrational hatred for herring. Now, will I eat it at Ikea next time I'm looking for a couch? No freaking way. But next time I'm traveling through Scandinavia I'll definitely look for another herring sandwich.