Friday, August 22, 2008

The Ritual of the Small Fish

Today I witnessed a ritual feast of the natives. In fact I participated in the “surströmming” as they seem to call it (their language, although there is a written form, seems to feature so many rounded and rolled sounds it is very difficult to master). I shall recount the details of this strange celebration. This morning I worked in the room allotted to me by the leaders of the tribe I have been watching and living with for 8 years now. One of the younger members of the group approached me and asked if I would like to join in the feast they were planning later that day, after those who did not eat the fish called ‘surströmming’ had left the common eating area. I was immediately interested in the secret and jovial tone that those who were to attend the feast adopted when they discussed it. I had heard talk of the ‘surströmming’ in my time among these northern peoples, its powerful aroma was feared by even the strongest in the tribe, but I had never seen it, that is before today.

I had spent the morning writing up my notes on the worship of the little bits of paper that so many of the natives here spend their time with, when it was suddenly the hour for the feast. The surströmming is only eaten under the sky outside buildings and even consumption in tents and other small or temporary shelters is strictly forbidden (suggesting it brings peels of laughter such is the distance they take from even the idea). I believe this has something to do with the spirits of the fish, which are released with their eating to float up upon the vapours of the meal. This leads me to my first encounter with the surstomming. I entered the courtyard that had be chosen for the feast, a table had been laid with brightly coloured metal pots holding the fish, the dry bread so popular here, the weak beer and the sacred vegetable the ‘potatis’ (yes its true, they eat the ground apple) This last feature of the ritual feast has reached such a high level in their culture that they have developed a huge variety of terms for the different variations one find in the ‘potatis’. I understand that they have over 3000 words for the ‘potatis’ depending on its colour, flavour, time of season, texture, home range and so on.

I was offered a place at the table and prepared for the sacred fish, the aroma of which had already overpowered me as I entered the courtyard. Feeling slightly nauseas from the odur I was given a fish and a piece of bread and one of the younger ones in the group (a female this time, the care of the ignorant and uninitiated is often taken on by the females in the group, something I intend to research further in my time here) began to instruct me in the preparation of it. The fish is a mottled slightly brown-grey colour about 8 to 10 centimetres long. It is served with its intestines still inside and without its head. The one I was given, I soon found, was a female and was filled with roe, a fortuitous sign it seemed as the natives seemed to congratulate me on this. I prepared the fish as I was instructed to do so, opened the guts carefully and removed them, after saving the roe, then turn the fish over and pulverize its spine in order to be able to turn it back again and remove said spine. The tail is removed when the spine is drawn from the body. I did this with the precision of a surgeon as around me the natives ate their own fish, joked and drank the beer. I nervously finished dressing the fish and then chose a ground apple from a large pot, peeled it and broke it up on the bread. I was then ready for the fish, breaking it up I put the raw pickled flesh on the ‘potatis’. Finally I was advised that a little onion (called ‘lök’) should be added but not too much as it would ‘spoil the taste’.
Finally I was ready for the eating of the ‘surströmming’ but I was afraid. What if I threw up in front of the group, or spat it out in an automatic reaction? I decided I needed a drink with it just in case I had to get the taste out of my mouth quickly ( I once spat a Chinese salty plum out as soon as I put it in my mouth on a crowded street corner, the worse thing I have ever tasted). I asked for a drink and was cheerfully given a beer. I was now ready for the sacred fish. I bit into the bread, ‘potatis’ and fish and 'savored the flavour' as they say. It is very salty, a warm and not entirely unpleasant taste, but raw and full. I am not sure I will eat it again.

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