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Fermented Fish

Fermented fish (also called rotten fish or spoiled fish, sometimes) is essentially an Eskimo food that is consumed either frozen or raw. In many Yup'ik communities of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta area, the fish is an important part of the diet. It is consumed almost on daily basis. Although the fish smells bad because of fermentation and rotting, the taste has been popularized as quite pleasant. In rural Alaska, the fish is a delicacy and an important food item for all special occasions and celebrations.

Surströmming is probably the most well-known commercial fish that is prepared through the process of fermentation. It is marketed in cans and because of the continuous fermentation for long periods, these cans often bulge during the storage and shipping. In most places, surströmming has actually become a synonym for fish that has been fermented and is edible. In fact, the two phrases are often used interchangeably.

History of Fermented Fish

While there is no concrete text available on how the dish came into being, some believe that it was the result of a mistake. Back in the 16th century, a few Swedish sailors had only half the amount of salt required to keep fish fresh. When the fish started to rot, the sailors decided to get rid of them. They came across some Finnish islander who tricked them by selling the rotting fish to them. When the sailors came back to the place after a year, they saw that the locals had managed to make what is today known as fermented fish.

There are, however, many who question this theory. The fish has often been linked to ancient Greeks and Romans as they are well known as the inventors and avid users of garum, a sauce made from rotten fish.

Preparation Overview of Rotten Fish

When made in the most simple and basic way, spoiled fish is prepared by first digging a hole in the ground, about 2 feet in measurement. The freshly caught fish is placed in the hole and it is then covered with earth. The fermentation period can be anywhere from a few weeks to some months. Once the fish has reached the preferred level of fermentation, it is dug-out and immediately frozen. The fish is then ready to be consumed.

The fish is also produced commercially in a few places.

Common Types of Fermented Fish

In addition to Surströmming, which is fermented herring fish, there are 3 more types of fermented fish:

Rakfisk - A traditional Norwegian fish preparation made from trout or char. It is salted and fermented for about 2 to 3 months and then consumed raw.

Tepa or Stinkheads - The fermented whitefish heads are an important food for the natives of southwest Alaska.

Fesikh - An important Sham el-Nessim dish, fesikh consists of gray mullet that has been fermented in salt and then dried.


It is a largely acknowledged fact that fermented fish tastes best when it is raw and frozen.