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LUTEFISK
A mysterious Norwegian Christmas tradition

Lutefisk .
Photo: Sara Johannessen / Matprat.no
Lutefisk .
Photo: Sara Johannessen / Matprat.no

Do you dare to try the most peculiar Norwegian Christmas dinner?

Lutefisk .
Photo: Sara Johannessen / Matprat.no
Lutefisk .
Photo: Sara Johannessen / Matprat.no

Made of stockfish that has been drained, placed in lye, and then drained again!

But... how on earth could someone come up with such a strange idea?

Norwegian stockfish .
Photo: Norwegian Seafood Council / Tom Haga
Norwegian stockfish .
Photo: Norwegian Seafood Council / Tom Haga

Nevertheless, lutefisk is probably the longest-standing Norwegian Christmas tradition, and might actually be the original Norwegian Christmas dinner. 

A lot of Norwegians gather annually at a lutefisklag, a lutefish get-together, in December, to celebrate the festive season, and many restaurants has it as on their menu a seasonal specialty.

Serving Lutefisk .
Photo: Fredrik Ahlsen, Maverix / Visit Norway
Serving Lutefisk .
Photo: Fredrik Ahlsen, Maverix / Visit Norway

Its peculiar consistency might be a challenge for unaccustomed pallets, and even among Norwegians it's a love or hate issue.

But what we all agree on, is that a lot of the magic lies in the delicious toppings!

Lutefisk and accessories .
Photo: Fredrik Ahlsen, Maverix / Visit Norway
Lutefisk and accessories .
Photo: Fredrik Ahlsen, Maverix / Visit Norway

As traditions go, this is a special one! Some people can't go without lutefisk during Christmas, and how this weird and wonderful dish became one of the longest standing Christmas traditions is still clouded in mystery.

We have long traditions for eating lutefisk in Norway. Before the Reformation in 1536, during catholic times, there was lent from the first of December to Christmas Day, and during lent you were only allowed to eat fish, including Christmas Eve.

Even though Norway has a long coastline, it could get hard for a lot of people in Norway to get their hands on fresh fish in time for the festive Christmas dinner. So they found new ways to utilize 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, especially common in the valleys of Eastern Norway. Others made persetorsk – a sugar-salted cod laid under pressure for a few days before consumption, commond in the Bergen area, and of course lutefisk was a go to all over Norway.

Exactly how the lutefisk dish was born however, nobody knows, but there are a few fun theories! Read more about them below.

History of the lutefisk

The lutefisk is documented as early as the 1500s. In the literature Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus (A Description of the Northern Peoples) by Olaus Magnus, he describes how lutefisk is treated and consumed:

"The dry stock fish is left in strong lye for two days, then it is rinsed in fresh water for one day before it is cooked and eaten. It is served with salted butter and is highly regarded, even by kings!”

It all started with the skrei, the Atlantic cod that every winter wander from the dark and cold Barents Ocean to the coast in Northern Norway to find a place to spawn, making place for one of the world's biggest and most famous seasonal fisheries. The dried skrei, the stock fish, became Norway's most important export product in the 1100s. Actually, the skrei is known as the fish that built Norway!

Drying rack for fish in Lofoten in Northern Norway
Drying rack for stockfish in Lofoten.
Photo: CH / Visitnorway.com

The origin of lutefisk

There are a lot of myths regarding the origin for using lye as a way for conserving, but no one knows when and why Norwegians started watering down the stock fish and treating it with lye. One theory is that a storage of stock fish burned down, and that the fish left in the alkaline ashes got wet in the rain. During these times, throwing away eatable food was not an option, so it was washed and cooked.

A similar story was that cod hanging on birch shelves had caught fire. Someone threw water on the scaffolding 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 assumption is that someone with a lack of time used lye to get a faster dilution of the stock fish, and to preserve wood, and ended up with lutefisk.

Varying servings and accessories

How you serve and what goes with the lutefisk varies a lot based on where in Norway you are. In Fjord Norway they prefer pea stew, boiled potatoes and bacon dices. In Trøndelag they prefer lutefisk with syrup and brown cheese. Some like to serve with turnip paste, others like to serve the fish inside a potato wrap with butter and potatoes.

There is no right or wrong when it comes to accessories to lutefisk, so try out your own combination and pick your favorite.

Lutefisk Tip!

Salt the fish a few hours before cooking. Put some aluminium foil over the pan when you put it in the oven, then the moister will stay inside the fish.

Lutefisk dinner.
Photo: Fredrik Ahlsen, Maverix / Visit Norway

Widespread presence

It's not only in Norway you can find lutefisk. In both Sweden, Finland and the USA, you will find lutefisk on the table, but it's not all the same. While Norwegians most commonly use cod to make lutefisk, in Sweden and Finland it's more common to make lutefisk out of ling, because of a growing depletion of cod in their waters.

In the Scandinavian parts of the USA, like Minnesota and Wisconsin, lutefisk has been a popular tradition over the last 160 years because of 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.

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Explore the home of lutefisk

The taste of Norwegian Christmas

Christmas traditions in Norway are as varied as the country itself. Here are some of the tastiest Norwegian holiday treats.

Eat your way through Norway

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