Lutefisk, dried cod in lye, is among Norway’s most talked about foods, having spurred decades of debates over its origins and flavor. Love it or hate it, lutefisk is a staple in traditional Norwegian cuisine.
While some adore this meticulously prepared fish dish, others would consider not even calling it food.
Literally translated to lye fish, lutefisk is a meal composed of dried stockfish (usually cod, ling, haddock, or pollock), with origins in Scandinavia.
Interestingly, across years of immigration to the United States from Scandinavia, lutefisk is considered to be eaten more regularly in the US than any of the Scandinavian countries today.
Despite this, it’s nevertheless an important tie to Norwegian culture on both sides of the Atlantic. Read on to learn all about the fish dish that elicits such strong feelings in its fans and critics.
What is lutefisk?
While lutefisk’s base is any kind of white fish, the most commonly used is cod.
To bring the fish to its desired taste and consistency, a two-week preparation process is required.
If the fish used is cod, the species is often freshly caught off the coasts of Nordland and Troms og Finnmark county, the two northernmost counties in Norway.
The regions’ chilly Atlantic currents manifest the perfect environment for cod.
A cold coast of northern Norway. Source: Vince gx / Unsplash.
After being caught, the fish is air-dried and soaked in water for several days, with the water changed daily. As the fish softens, lye (a strong alkaline solution) is added to create a jellylike consistency.
Once again, the fish soaked in water for six days, with the water changed daily.
At this point, the lutefisk regularly releases a fishy smell, so odorous that it’s spurred many lutefisk jokes (some specialty stores sell shirts that say “Lutefish Survivor” on them).
Once this process is done, the viscous fish may either be steamed or baked, and finally served with bacon bits, boiled potatoes, warm cream or melted butter, and mashed peas.
Lutefisk lovers attribute its taste to salmon or tuna – when it’s properly prepared, the lutefisk taste is quite mild.
Don’t forget to pair your meal with pints of beer and aquavit, Norway’s national liquor.
Why is lutefisk soaked in lye – and is lutefisk toxic?
Perhaps the most important – and infamous – part of lutefisk’s production process is adding lye to the fish. It’s also one of the most dangerous parts.
Lye creates a highly alkaline environment, and, as a result, certain cutlery and dishware used in the making may corrode if not properly cleaned. The meal can also be problematic for those with stomach ulcers.
Properly prepared lutefisk is not toxic and can be enjoyed by those with no underlying gastrointestinal problems.
Whether you find it tasty, on the other hand, is something entirely up to your taste buds.
The exact origin of lutefisk hasn’t been confirmed with absolute certainty, but records indicate the dish has been around since the 15th or 16th century at least.
During the mid-16th century, Swedish author Olaus Magnus wrote about its preparation, and also touched upon what he saw as the appropriate way of serving it: with loads of butter. Written records also indicate that the cod was prepared as a dish for special occasions in 16th-century Sweden.
The dish also has ties to the Vikings, who are thought to have feasted on the fish between the eighth and eleventh centuries. One tale recalls St. Patrick‘s attempt to poison Viking raiders in Ireland with the lye-drenched cod.
Rather than being killed by it, however, the Vikings supposedly enjoyed the flavor and declared it a delicacy.
The timing doesn’t quite match up (St. Patrick was born about three centuries before the Viking Age), but the story provides an interesting twist on lutefisk’s possible origins.
Another legend has it that one seafaring day, a group of reckless Vikings burned down a fishing village, including the wooden racks upon which cod was drying.
In an effort to save their settlement, the local fishermen who had been ransacked poured water all over their village, including the drying racks. After ashes had covered the cod, it rained, creating a sort of lye slush.
Later on, the villagers realized the dried fish took on an appearance similar to fresh fish. Interested in the creation, the fishermen rinsed the fish to remove the lye, then boiled it. One villager who dared to try the jiggly cod referred to it as “not bad” and the rest is history.
No matter its true origins, lutefisk clearly took firm roots in Norwegian culture – and it’s here to stay.
It’s said that about half of all Norwegian immigrants moved to the US to escape lutefisk, while the other half did so to spread its joys.
During the early-to-mid 19th century, large Norwegian migrations to the US began, many focused on midwestern states such as Wisconsin and Minnesota (which, today, are the top two states with the highest Norwegian-American population).
On their strenuous journey over the Atlantic, the immigrants supposedly only had lutefisk on board.
Today, many Norwegian-Americans eat the dish in order to honor their ancestors’ courage and acknowledge their hardships.
Scandinavian- and Norwegian-American households often serve lutefisk for festivities, too; typically on Thanksgiving and Christmas.
In the midwestern states, the fish can actually be found at local supermarkets, or served at Norwegian churches, traditionally between October and the end of the year.
A difference between lutefisk in the US and Norway is that Norway seems to dislike the fish more than the US. Norwegians are glad to eat lutefisk only once a year during Christmastime.
Whereas if you venture on to Madison, Minnesota, the self-proclaimed “lutefisk capital of the world”, a plastic fish nicknamed “Lou T. Fisk” happily greets visitors year-round.
Where is lutefisk eaten in Norway and the US?
There’s plenty of places to taste-test lutefisk in both the United States and Norway.
In lutefisk-loving Madison, Wisconsin, Scandinavians and non-Scandinavians alike gather at Lakeview Lutheran Church, which hosts annual lutefisk dinners, typically at the beginning of November.
Up to 1,000 pounds of lutefisk are cooked, and over 200 sheets of lefse are prepared. So, it’s no surprise the preparation for this monumental dinner begins in September.
If traditionally prepared lutefisk doesn’t sound like your style, you can spice it up with soy sauce for an Asian fusion twist, or substitute it with kjottboller (Norwegian meatballs) instead; both options are offered at the church.
If you’re in Norway, Oslo is a great place to start if you’ve never tried lutefisk before, as there are many authentic dining options in the city, and the fish is domestically caught.
Gamle Raadhus Restaurant, for example, uses local white fish and other organic produce to prepare the lutefisk and its corresponding side dishes. From the end of October to Christmas, one of the most demanded dishes is at the eatery is – you guessed it, lutefisk, served with fresh garnish.
You’ll probably receive the freshest stockfish, however, in Tromso, the heart of Troms og Finnmark county. Emma’s Drommekjokken is a charming restaurant that opts for salted and pan-fried cod for their lutefisk, paired with regional flavors and traditional sides, such as mashed peas and vegetables.
Lutefisk served with mashed peas and bacon bits. Source: Kirk K / Flickr.
If you’re a lutefisk survivor – on a scale from loving lutefisk to hating it, where do you find yourself? If you haven’t tried the controversial cod yet, are you planning on it?
Source: Norway Today