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From war provisions to beloved delicacy: Thousands of tonnes of stockfish make its way from the cold waters of Lofoten to Lagos this year.

Published: 7 December 2017

One would be hard pressed to name a more specifically Norwegian culinary tradition than stockfish – or tørrfisk, as it is called in its native country. 

To many, the sight of cod hanging to dry on giant wooden racks in cool air, sun and wind is inseparably linked with their image of the coastline in Northern Norway.   

But why on earth would this delicacy be so popular in the bustling and vibrant Oyingbo Market in Lagos, Nigeria?

The scent of nostalgia

In a recent documentary from the Nigerian capital, BBC explores how stockfish has become a permanent part of the country’s cooking – alongside aromatic and colorful traditional dishes such as suya, kilishi and miyan kuka.

Abuja, Nigeria

Abuja, Nigeria.
Photo: GodwinPaya [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

One of the Nigerians embracing stockfish as a commodity is rising star chef Michael Elegbede, who associates the fish product with childhood memories.  

"When we got home and we smelled the boiling stockfish we knew grandma is cooking, and now when I smell stockfish that nostalgia of my grandmother immediately kicks into my head," he says to BBC.

Elegbe trained to be a chef in the United States. Among the places he has worked is Eleven Madison Park in New York, which was ranked as the world’s top restaurant earlier this year.

In recent years he has returned to his native country to focus on the unique Nigerian flavours, ingredients and foods. He often uses stockfish – which he thought was a culinary tradition from Nigeria – in his signature dishes, enhancing the taste and aroma. 

"As a kid I was never told that this stockfish was something from Norway. It was so common that I couldn't imagine it not being Nigerian," he recalls.

Between 20 and 30 million dinners each year

Nigeria is by now the biggest importer of Norwegian stockfish, ahead of Italy, Croatia and Sweden. 

In the fishing community of Lofoten, Erling Falch of the family-owned stockfish producer Saga Fisk details the huge volume of dried seafood leaving archipelago each year. 

"We sell about 200 to 250 containers of stockfish to Nigeria; that's about 4,000 tonnes. It's around 20 to 30 million dinners," Falch says.


Photo: Alex Conu / Visitnorway.com

A taste of grim history

How, then, did stockfish become a vital part of Nigerian cooking. The explanation has more than a hint of darkness. 

During the famine triggered by the Nigerian civil war, also known as the Biafran war, between 1967 and 1970, the world responded with various forms of aid. 

Norway’s contribution was stockfish – a food source rich in proteins and vitamins, proving efficient in battling the notorious deficiency disease kwashiorkor. 

This context has made some Nigerians need time to consider stockfish a delicacy. Edwin Mofefe was a young boy when the war broke out, and for a long time he associated the taste with painful memories.  

"It was our medicine," he tells BBC – adding that he as an adult has learned to appreciate the depth and flavour the fish adds to the melon seed-based soup egusi.     

Hear the BBC radio documentary “Stockfish” in its entirety here.

Reine, Lofoten

Reine, Lofoten.
Photo: Frithjof Fure / Visitnorway.com

The pride of the Norwegian coast

Even though stockfish is one of the most important Norwegian export articles – and perhaps the most socioeconomically profitable in a historical perspective, according to historian Ivan Kristoffersen – enjoying the delicacy in Norway is of course fully possible.   

The fish product is continually present in Norwegian food culture – as everyday food, on festive occasions and as a snack. Other flavourful variations of dried fish include klippfisk and lutefisk. The stockfish, however, is characterized by being unsalted and merely produced utilizing sun and wind.  

In other words: A pure and unadulterated taste of the Norwegian coastline.

What is stockfish (tørrfisk)?

Unsalted fish – usually cod, but other types of whitefish are used as well – dried in the sun and wind on large wooden racks (“hjell” in Norwegian).

The fish is dried outdoors while there’s still snow on the ground – usually between February and May – for approximately three months. It is then matured for two to three months indoors.

Too much rain or frost will spoil the stockfish. A temperature just above zero degrees celsius is ideal for the drying process.

Drying of food is the world’s oldest known conservation technique. The Norwegian word for cod, “torsk”, is derived from the old Norwegian word “turskr”, which originates from “turrfiskr” (tørrfisk).

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