A very unique Norwegian Christmas tradition
Do you dare try the most quintessentially Norwegian Christmas dinner?
Lutefisk is stockfish that has been soaked in water, placed in lye, and then soaked in water again!
How on earth did someone come up with such a strange idea?
Lutefisk is one of the longest-standing Norwegian Christmas traditions, and may be the original Norwegian Christmas dinner.
Many Norwegians gather annually for a lutefisklag, a lutefisk dinner, in December, to celebrate the festive season. Many restaurants have it on their menu as a seasonal specialty.
Its unusual consistency might be a challenge for unaccustomed pallets. There is even division among Norwegians, who tend to love it or hate it.
But one thing everyone agrees on is that a lot of the magic lies in the delicious side dishes!
As far as traditions go, this is one is unique! In Norway, some people can't live without lutefisk during Christmas. But how did this weird and wonderful dish became one of the longest standing Norwegian Christmas traditions?
We have long traditions for eating lutefisk in Norway. Before the Reformation in 1536, lent was observed from the first of December to Christmas Day. During lent, Christians were only permitted to eat fish, including on Christmas Eve.
Even though Norway has a long coastline, it could be difficult for a lot of people to get hold of fresh fish in time for their festive Christmas dinner. So they found new ways to utilise preserved fish instead. Some parts of Norway made rakørret – a fish dish made from trout that has been salted and autolyzed for two to twelve months, and which is especially common in the valleys of Eastern Norway. Others made persetorsk – a dish made from sugar-salted cod that is pressed together for a few days before consumption, which is common in the Bergen area. Last, but not least, lutefisk was a popular choice all over Norway.
Although nobody knows the exact origin of lutefisk, there are a few fun theories. Read more about them below!
The history of lutefisk
Lutefisk is documented as early as the 1500s. In his work Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus (A Description of the Northern Peoples), Olaus Magnus describes how lutefisk is treated and consumed:
"The dry stockfish is left in strong lye for two days, then it is rinsed in fresh water for one day before being cooked and eaten. It is served with salted butter and is highly regarded, even by kings!”
It all started with skrei, the Arctic stock of Atlantic cod that every winter migrate from the dark and cold Barents Sea to the coast in Northern Norway to find a place to spawn, creating one of the world's biggest and most famous seasonal fisheries. Dried skrei, called stockfish, became Norway's most important export product in the 1100s. Skrei is in fact known as the fish that built Norway!
There are a lot of myths regarding the origin for using lye for conservation, but no one knows when and why Norwegians started soaking stockfish and treating it with lye. One theory is that a stockfish storehouse burned down, and that the fish that was left in the alkaline ashes got wet in the rain. During these times, throwing away edible food was not an option, so it was cleaned and cooked.
A similar story has it that some cod that had been hung to dry on birch racks had caught fire. Someone threw water on the racks to put out the fire. When the ashes became cold, someone cleaned the ashes and found the fish, which they later washed. To determine if it was still edible, the fish was boiled. And it was delicious!
A less sensational theory is that some impatient soul tried using lye to speed up the dilution of the stockfish and preserve wood, and ended up with lutefisk.
Varieties and side dishes
How lutefisk is served and what it should be accompanied by varies a lot based on where in Norway you are. In Fjord Norway, mushy peas, boiled potatoes, and bacon cubes are the preferred accompaniment. In Trøndelag, they prefer to serve lutefisk with syrup and brown cheese. Some like to serve it with mashed kohlrabi, while others like to serve lutefisk in a potato flatbread wrap with butter and potatoes.
There is no right or wrong when it comes to lutefisk, so feel free to try out your own combinations and find your own favourite side dishes.
Lutefisk around the world
It's not only in Norway you can find lutefisk - it is also served in Sweden, Finland, and the USA. However, there are some variations. While Norwegians most commonly use cod, it's more common to make lutefisk out of ling in Sweden and Finland, due to the growing depletion of cod in their waters.
In US states with a strong Scandinavian heritage, like Minnesota and Wisconsin, lutefisk has been a popular tradition for at least 160 years due to Scandinavian immigration. The fact that the tradition has held up so well in the USA may be due to the fact that eating lutefisk is strongly linked to the preservation of one's Nordic identity.
Eat your way through Norway
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