The revival of herring

What would a Norwegian food blog be without a post or twelve about our  infamous herring?  Well, here comes the first one… As I struggle to figure out where to begin to explain herring, the importance of our herring history, and just how incredible this fish is, I would like to emphasize that there are many mouthwatering, updated recipes featuring herring which I think would make our forefathers proud. Don’t think just “pickled” when you hear the word herring, not just vinegar and onion. Please.

I compare herring to other underrated foods such as sea urchin, mackerel, celery root and sauerkraut; foods only true food lovers and omnivores seem to know how to appreciate. Besides being inexpensive, it must be considered one of the healthiest and most flavorful foods in existence, rich in omega 3 fatty acids, vitamin A, D and B12 and a good source of protein.


The history of herring dates back thousands of years, all the way back to the times of Odin and Thor, where there was mentions by Thor about eating herring. Evidence also exists that export of herring to Sweden happened at a very early stage. Norwegians owe a lot to herring, as it saved the people both from hunger and financial ruin during tough times, and was instrumental in developing the rich coastal culture we have today. If I had to admit that the Swedes were better than us at anything, it would be preserving the culture of eating herring.  The herring disappeared from many household tables in Norway for a while, which is sad because I find it one of the most interesting and versatile fish types out there. It has, however, experienced a revival among food professionals who have helped increase the popularity of this fish yet again in Norway.


There used to be, and still are sometimes, among old people,  a lot of superstition about the herring, both in Norway and overseas.  One wives tale went that if  herring was eaten on Christmas and/or New Years Day, it would bring wealth and happiness. It was also believed that herring had healing capabilities and would cure a plethora of illnesses if consumed.  Scared of the dark? Your fears would vanish if you sucked on a herring.  Some were worried that creatures of the underworld would throw a spell on their horses, but this could be prevented by placing a herring in the hay, which would protect the horse.


In the old days when herring was served for dinner, it was common practice to break the backbone of the fish after eating it. Otherwise, the following year would either bring emaciated fish only, or the fish would wake up and be brought back to life and chase the person for the rest of his or her life. Serious stuff!


In Norway, the traditional conservation method was to dry or smoke the herring.  The Dutch, however, would place herring in a salt solution and store it in oak barrels, which was new to the Norwegians. Later on, we adapted this way of preserving the fish as well. Even though herring has played an important role for a long time in Norway and Norwegians regard themselves as “herring experts”, it was eventually the people of Holland  who ended up dominating the herring industry in Europe.


There are many different types of herring, but I won’t go into details about them in this post, that’s for some other time I get in a herring mood and  that probably won’t be too far off in the future.  Without trying to be cryptic, I just want to mention that depending on what time of year the herring is caught, the fat content and quality varies widely, which is why the herring has many names. This is so people will be able to identify what kind of herring they are buying and match it to what they are looking to make. An overall consensus is that the herring has to be fatty and super fresh to be considered of the best quality.

Herring hasn’t always  been my favorite. I recall one incident, in particular – when I was around 6 or 7 years old.  My mother forced me to eat a whole herring for dinner, with bones in it, skin on and everything, all taking place in front of my best friend, Renate, who horrified, had to sit beside me waiting for me to finish my plate before we could continue playing.  There was no special kid’s meals in that household!!  With tears streaming down my eyes, I got no comfort from my mother, just an explanation that the bones would cleanse my insides, help with my digestion and give me better health (really mom?). Luckily, I didn’t develop a hate for herring later on in life (although I never quite forgave my mother), rather my curiosity built up around this magnificent fish as I grew older.



My maternal grandfather Josef Liavåg, was a fisherman and knew a lot about fish and herring in particularly, as he ran a herring factory on the coast near Hareid.   Here he is pictured with my grandmother, Sarah  on their wedding day in 1918:

A couple of my uncles and cousins were, and some still are, fishermen as well. One of my uncles tragically died while at sea, so my family has close ties to the ocean and the fishing industry that is so prevalent in this part of Norway. Although I may not have enjoyed that piece of bony herring at age 6, my mom was a specialist in preparing pickled herring. Her version was the traditional recipe called “sursild”, where she added onion and black peppercorns to the herring with perhaps some sprigs of dill, and was often featured on our breakfast table. Sweet, salty and sour all at once, it was always a special treat when my mom would bring out her special jar.


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Today we see a myriad of incredibly exciting recipes featuring herring. Herring parties and festivals are arranged all over the country yearly and chefs compete as to who has the most innovative herring dish.  It’s nice to see a vibrancy around this ingredient again, and a movement I support wholeheartedly!  Below I’ve listed a few recipes I’ve gathered through the years, and should all be stored in mason jars, utilized as toppings on your sandwich or flatbreads, or just enjoyed as is.  I hope you will get inspired to pick some herring up the next time you are at your fishmonger!


4 oz marinated Matjes Herring

4 oz pumpkin

1 orange

1/2 cup water

1/4 cup olive oil

1-2 shallots, thinly sliced

1/2 tsp sugar

whole peppercorns, salt

Cut the butternut squash into small cubes. In a small pot, add the orange, butternut squash, water and peppercorn. Bring to a boil and turn down to a simmer, cook until the squash is tender. Add the shallots and olive oil. Fold in the herring pieces and season with salt and pepper.  Bottle in a beautiful mason jar, place in fridge and enjoy when you’re ready!



5 oz marinated, cured salmon

1/4 cup horseradish juice

1/2 cup sour cream

1 egg yolk

1 tbsp white wine vinegar

1 cup sunflower oil

1 tbsp mustard

1 tsp sugar

1 tbsp chives, finely chopped

2 shallots, finely diced

salt, sugar

Whisk egg yolk, mustard, vinegar and oil until you have a mayonnaise. Add the horseradish uice and the sourcream. Season with salt and sugar until you have a balance between salty and sweet. Fold in the marinated cured herring, shallots and chives. Store in a beautiful mason jar and keep in a cold space.


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4 oz matjes herring

1 tbsp whole grain mustard

1 tbsp Dijon mustard

2 tbsp honey

2 tbsp mild rapeseed oil

2 shallots, finely diced

1 tbsp apple cider vinegar

1 tbsp sugar

2 spring onions, finely sliced


Combine all the ingredients, fold in the herring in the end.


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4 oz marinated Matjes herring

1/2 tsp caraway

1/2 tsp anise seed

1/2 tsp fennel seeds

5 cardamom seeds

1/2 tsp coriander seeds

1 vanilla bean, split in half

1 cup olive oil

1/2 cup aquavit

zest of 1 lemon


Cut the fennel into thin slices and parboil it in salted water, along with the oil and aquavit. Add the spices and add the herring at the end. Season with salt. Cool and store in a mason jar, place in a fridge or other cool spot.


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