In Search of the Food Your Norwegian Ancestors Enjoyed: Lutefisk

NOTE: I am presently in a hotel room in Oslo, Norway, and will attend the MyHeritage LIVE 2018 Conference this weekend. While here, I decided to look for a restaurant that serves a traditional Norwegian meal called lutefisk. However, I haven’t found it yet. Is it still a staple food in Norway? Admittedly, I am hampered by the fact that many restaurants in Norway print their menus only in Norwegian! Also, I am here in Norway a bit early for the lutefisk season.

I have found restaurants that serve mooseburgers and reindeer burgers (It was delicious!) and steaks but no Lutefisk as of yet.

Here is what I know about Lutefisk.

lu·te·fisk \´lüd·e¸fisk, ´ lüe-\ or lut·fisk \´lüt¸f-\ also lu-de·fisk \´lüde-\ or lud·fisk \´ lüd¸f-\ n -s [lutefisk fr. Norw, fr. lute to wash in lye solution + fisk fish; lutfisk fr. Sw, fr.luta to wash in lye solution + fisk fish; ludefisk & ludfisk fr. Dan ludfisk fr. lude to wash in lye solution + fisk fish; stockfish that has been soaked in lye water, skinned, boned, and boiled

It is with some hesitation that I write about lutefisk. It reportedly is a vile tasting dish made of cod or a similar white fish, dried, then preserved, then soaked in lye (!), later soaked in plain water to remove the caustic (poisonous) lye, then cooked. All along the way, it smells like … Well, let’s just say I am told that it smells bad. Really bad.

Although lutefisk is eaten by Norwegians, lutefisk often is also eaten by Americans and Canadians of Scandinavian descent. Lutefisk reportedly is very popular in Nordic-North American areas of Canada, especially the prairie regions and the large Finnish community at Sointula on Malcolm Island in the province of British Columbia, and in the United States, particularly in the Upper Midwest and Pacific Northwest. From October to February, there are numerous lutefisk feeds in cities and towns around Puget Sound. In the Nordic Countries, the “season” for lutefisk starts early in November and typically continues through Christmas.

In the United States, Madison, Minnesota, has dubbed itself the “lutefisk capital of the world” as well as claiming the largest per capita consumption of lutefisk in Minnesota.

I haven’t been able to verify the tale that lutefisk is also used as roofing material in Denmark.

The origin of lutefisk is unknown. Legends include the accidental dropping of fish into a lye bucket or sodden wood ash containing lye under a drying rack. Another legend claims the practice enabled Norwegians to store fish outdoors. Cold temperature acted as a preservative, and the lye deterred wild animals from eating the fish.

In sagas of the Norwegian Kings from the 12th century, Snorre wrote about King Oystein building fishing shanties in the Lofoten area of Norway. Then, as now, Lofoten was the most important spawning ground for the cod. In the months of January through April, huge catches are taken from the fjords of Norway.

The Norwegian-Arctic species of the cod spends its life in the feeding grounds of the Barents Sea. At maturity, from six to seven years, the spawning cod migrate, returning to the Lofoten area. The fish are caught, cleaned, and dried for several weeks.

Lutefisk, or “dried, reconstituted fish soaked in lye” is a once-a-year delicacy for many Norwegians. Some Scandinavian descendants claim that their strength and longevity are derived from eating lutefisk at least once a year. It is traditionally served at Christmas although some will eat it on other occasions.

When asked why it is only eaten once a year, one Norwegian replied, “Oh, you can’t eat lutefisk more than once a year.” With that bit of questionable logic in mind, let’s examine the creation of this delicacy.

The age-old preparation method is to soak the dried cod in regularly changed cold water for a period of eight days. The cod is then soaked for another two days in a mixture of water and potash lye, after which it’s soaked for two more days in fresh water. The process reportedly leaves an unmistakable aroma in the house for days. Family members have been known to move out of the house when lutefisk is being prepared.

The final step is simmering the fish for 10 to 15 minutes, just until it becomes translucent. The remaining household members move out at that time. If overcooked, lutefisk quickly becomes the consistency of gelatin and is best discarded.

Lutefisk must be served hot on piping hot plates. Accompaniments vary among bacon or pork drippings, white sauce, mustard sauce, or melted butter – which seems to remain a favorite. Boiled and steamed potatoes and stewed whole, dry green peas are a must as a vegetable accompaniment. The only other necessary additions are freshly ground pepper and lefse, or flatbread. In some parts of Northern Norway, lutefisk is served with melted goat cheese. Even most Norwegians will agree that lutefisk tastes bad, but you’ll need to pour huge amounts of aquavit into them to get this confession.

If you are adventurous and want to prepare lutefisk at home (why?), you can find a number of lutefisk recipes by starting at https://duckduckgo.com/?q=lutefisk+recipe&t=h_&atb=v73-3_q&ia=recipes.

If you are not quite ready to prepare your own lutefisk, Olsen’s in Minnesota at https://www.olsenfish.com/scandinavian-food-products/lutefisk/ will do all the unpleasant tasks and then deliver fresh or frozen lutefisk to your door via UPS. Olsen’s sells all sorts of Norwegian dishes, including potato lefse, pickled herring, fresh lutefisk, frozen lutefisk and even lutefisk TV dinners!

I think I’ll pass on that TV dinner.

You can often find lutefisk being served at various Nordic festivals in the U.S. and Canada. This might be the safer way to try it rather than cooking it at home! The Sons of Norway often serve traditional lutefisk and lefse (potato flat bread) at their Nordic fests. Members of the lodge might be dishing up these Scandinavian staples along with polser (sausage), rommegrot (a sour cream porridge) and crispy rosettes and other traditional cookies.

I have been told that lutefisk is no longer popular in Norway and after my search this week in Oslo, I can believe that. An article in the New York Times a few years ago claimed that “more lutefisk is eaten in the United States than in Norway.”

Jeffrey Steingarten, author of The Man Who Ate Everything, once said, “Lutefisk is not food, it is a weapon of mass destruction. It is currently the only exception for the man who ate everything. Otherwise, I am fairly liberal, I gladly eat worms and insects, but I draw the line on lutefisk.”

And here’s a traditional (?) song for your enjoyment:

O Lutefisk, O Lutefisk, how fragrant your aroma.
O Lutefisk, O Lutefisk, you put me in a coma.
You smell so strong, you look like glue
You taste yust like an overshoe
But Lutefisk, come Saturday
I tink I’ll eat you anyvay…

–Verse with a Scandinavian twist from O Lutefisk, to be sung to the tune of O Tannenbaum (O Christmas Tree)

You can learn more about lutefisk in YouTube videos. Start at: https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=lutefisk.

Check out the expression on Anderw Zimmern’s face when the tries lutefisk for the first time at: https://youtu.be/5w8scBudftM.

Here’s a question for Norwegian residents: Do you know of a restaurant in Oslo that serves lutefisk this time of year?

17 Comments

Lutefisk is usually served around Christmas, so you are a bit early for it. It is usually part of the Norwegian julebord and Swedish julbord (Christmas table).

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Lutfisk is traditional Christmas food in Sweden. Even if I think it is less popular now or Among younger people than it was before. Welcome to Scandinavia. However raring out is expensive in Norway.

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My family attends a lutefisk and meatball dinner every year near the holidays to celebrate my husband’s Norwegian heritage. If it is prepared well, lutefisk tastes like egg whites that are a little more jelly-like.

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Lutefisk was a Christmas tradition at our house growing up; it has the look and consistency of chicken fat, and when eaten with melted butter, it tastes like melted butter. We always had Swedish Meatballs as an alternative.

Skip the lutefisk and go in search of lefse instead.

Lutefisk hasn’t been prepared with lye in decades. But if you thought sauerkraut was strong smelling…

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I have a friend here in Florida who’s of Norwegian extraction. He thinks lutefisk is wonderful. He eats it every year, although I’ve never seen him do it. He makes his own lefse to go with it.

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When I was a child, every Xmas eve Mom made lutefisk for her and Dad, and fried chicken for my brother and me. The stench of it kept us kids from tasting lutefisk. I was 40 years old before I tried lutefisk. Mom said the secret to good lutefisk (besides changing the water frequently for a few days to get out the lye) was in baking it – but don’t bake it too long, just a few minutes. The fish should be firm enough to stay on one’s fork while dipping it in butter when it comes out of the oven (I think she covered it to make it come out firm but still moist – it should not be dry). Boiling lutefisk results in a smelly gelatinous mess she couldn’t stand, and that’s what is usually served at Xmas dinners at churches or local halls that feature lutefisk and Swedish meatballs.
To my astonishment, lutefisk baked my mother’s way has little/no taste other than the melted butter one dips it in (that’s real butter, not margarine!), the fish separates from the bones in flakes when baked to perfection like Mom made it…, and I loved it! If you see photos of the traditional food served with lutefisk, it’s potatoes, peas, and bacon.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lutefisk
Perhaps potato lefse on the side. There’s more than one way of making lefse, and made with potatoes like my mother did resulted in a mouthful of bliss when it was spread with butter while still warm, sprinkled with brown sugar, rolled up, and eaten.
Yes, lutefisk stinks to high heaven, but thoroughly rinsed and then baked like my mother made it yields part of a delicious (if bland-tasting) dining experience. Lutefisk was traditionally for poor people in the old country and a staple for winter food since it can be stored for so long, but since it was such a rarity here in the US the food became a holiday tradition in immigrant families and their descendants.
I’m thinking lutefisk is not as putrid a smell as the Swedish canned herring known as surströmming, which allegedly makes one’s eyes water and because of the smell it is recommended that the can only be opened outdoors.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Surstr%C3%B6mming
If you can’t find lutefisk on the menu in Oslo, perhaps that’s because it’s a winter food. Or, maybe because of the smell it’s just not served in restaurants. If you order cod, it’s the same thing without the stench of lye. Cod is typically a bland-tasting fish.

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    Adding to my own post a link to a WCCO story from three years ago about a company in MN that processes lutefisk, and they’ve branched out to pickled herring.

    A local story from 2010 about lutefisk in MN:

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I love lutefisk! A staple for our Norwegian/Swedish family growing up in Minnesota. Need lots of butter. And lefse…lots of lefse. My Aunties made the best! I actually found some frozen lutefisk at a California Safeway in winter. I’m a bit jealous you are in Norway.

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When I was a kid, the adults on Christmas Eve used to eat lutefisk wrapped in lefse, like a Norwegian burrito. I once told a friend that the tradition died out in our family since all the people who liked it were dead and she asked, “Do you suppose there’s a connection?”

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Many years ago on my first trip to meet my future in-laws which was at Christmas time, they decided to have their lutefisk before we arrived rather than the usual Christmas Eve meal so I have never yet tasted lutefisk.

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Try one of these restaurants:
Norwegian restaurants serving traditional style meals:
Dovrehallen: Reasonably priced, decent food. Five minutes from the Central Station.
https://goo.gl/maps/N6VPh9bEt7A2
http://www.dovrehallen.no/dagens-retter
Restaurant Schrøder. Famous for great traditional food. 15-20 minutes from the Central Station.
https://goo.gl/maps/YCL8sJ3EtmF2
https://www.xn--restaurant-schrder-u4b.no/vare-menyer/dagensretter/
(Translator at bottom left)

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My 93-year old mother-in-law, who’s as Swedish as anyone in Stockholm because her grandparents and parents only married other Swedish Americans, tells us her mother used to make lutefisk, especially for Christmas Eve feasts. Mom would go in the kitchen and make herself a hot dog.

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I really enjoyed this article! We lived in Minot, North Dakota for nine years where many Norwegians and their descendants live. One day at the grocery store, a terrible stench was emanating from the meat department. The closer I got to the meat department, the worse the unpleasant smell grew. I went to the front of the store to report the smell, telling the manager that I thought something had died (and not recently!) or that some meat had rotted. He explained that they were cooking lutefisk. None of our Norwegian friends ever offered us lutefisk, but they insisted it was delicious smothered with melted butter. After experiencing the reeking stench, I will never be enticed to try lutefisk!

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An alternate way to eat Lutefisk was demonstrated to me at an annual Lutheran Church dinner by two northern Wisconsin farmers (Norwegian descent, of course) who had been eating Lutefisk for years. Take lefse, butter it, place piece of Lutefisk in the lefse, add salt and pepper, then finally add a bit of sugar…roll and you have a Norwegian Burrito. To me that just spoiled the lefse…

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Adam Richman’s description is hilarious!

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I used to live in Clifton, Texas in Bosque (BOS-key) County. It is called the “Norwegian Capital of Texas” and they have an annual Lutefisk dinner in nearby Cranfills Gap every December. Come on down!
http://www.texasgetawayvacation.com/norwegian-lutefisk-dinner.html

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M. Andeen (should be Andreasson) November 15, 2018 at 12:22 pm

We (in California) still have lutefisk every Christmas because of my husband’s Swedish roots. All four of his grandparents immigrated from Sweden to Minnesota. We always sing the song you mentioned and also have the grandchildren read the following poem by Dan Freeburg.
LUTEFISK LAMENT
‘Twas the day before Christmas, with things all a bustle.
As Mama got set for the Christmas Eve tussle.
Aunts, uncles, and Cousins would soon be arriving,
With stomachs all ready for Christmas Eve dining.
While I sat alone with a feeling of dread,
As visions of lutefisk danced in my head.
The thought of the smell made my eyeballs start burning.
The thought of the taste set my stomach to churning.
For I’m one of those who good Swedes rebuff,
A Scandahoovian boy who can’t stand the stuff.
Each year, however, I played at the game,
To spare Mama and Papa the undying shame.
I must bear up bravely. I can’t take the risk,
Of relatives knowing I hate lutefisk.
Then out in the yard I heard such a clatter.
I jumped up to see what was the matter.
There in the snow, all in a jumble,
Three of my uncles had taken a tumble.
From out in the kitchen an odor came stealing,
That fairly set all of my senses to reeling.
The smell of the lutefisk crept down the hall,
And wilted a plant in a pot on the wall.
Uncles Oscar and Lars said “Oh, that smells yummy,”
And Kermit’s eyes glittered while he patted his tummy.
Mama announced dinner by ringing a bell.
They rushed to the table with a whoop and a yell.
I lifted my eyes to heaven and sighed,
And a rose on the wallpaper withered and died.
Then Mama came proudly with a bowl on a trivet.
You would have thought the crown jewels were in it.
She set it down gently and then took her seat.
And Papa said grace before we could eat.
It seemed to me, in my whirling head,
The shortest of prayers he ever had said.
Then Mama raised the cover on that steaming dish,
And I had to face the quivering fish.
The plates were passed for Papa to fill,
While I waited in agony, twixt fever and chill.
He dipped in the spoon and held it up high,
As it oozed to plates, I thought I would die.
Then it came to my plate, and to my fevered brain.
There seemed enough lutefisk to derail a train.
It looked like a mountain of congealing glue,
Yet oddly transparent and discolored in hue.
With butter and cream sauce I tried to conceal it,
I salted and peppered, but the smell would reveal it.
I drummed up my courage, tried to be bold,
Mama reminds me, “Eat before it gets cold.”
Deciding to face it, “Uffda,” I sighed.
“Uffda, indeed,” my stomach replied.
Then summoning the courage for which we are known,
My hand took the fork as with a mind of its own.
And with reckless abandon the lutefisk I ate,
Within 20 seconds, I’d cleaned up my plate.
Uncle Kermit flashed me an ear-to-ear grin,
As butter and cream sauce dripped from his chin.
Then to my great shock, he spoke in my ear,
“I’m sure glad that’s over for another year.”
It was then that I learned a great wonderful truth,
That Swedes and Norwegians from old men to youth,
Must each pay their dues to have the great joy,
Of being known as a good Scandahoovian boy,
And so to tell you all, as you face the great test,
“Happy Christmas to you, and to you all my best.”

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