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?