Lutefisk (Norwegian) or Lutfisk (Swedish) pronounced [lʉːtfesk] in Northern and Central Norway, [lʉːtəfɪsk] in Southern Norway, [lʉːtfɪsk] in Sweden and in Finland (Finnish: lipeäkala)) is a traditional dish of some Nordic countries. It is made from aged stockfish (air-dried whitefish) or dried/salted whitefish (klippfisk) and lye (lut). It is gelatinous in texture, and has an extremely strong, pungent odor. Its name literally means "lye fish."
Lutefisk is made from dried whitefish (normally cod in Norway, but ling is also used) prepared with lye in a sequence of particular treatments. The watering steps of these treatments differ slightly for salted/dried whitefish because of its high salt content.
The first treatment is to soak the stockfish in cold water for five to six days (with the water changed daily). The saturated stockfish is then soaked in an unchanged solution of cold water and lye for an additional two days. The fish swells during this soaking, and its protein content decreases by more than 50 percent producing a jelly-like consistency. When this treatment is finished, the fish (saturated with lye) is caustic, with a pH value of 11–12. To make the fish edible, a final treatment of yet another four to six days of soaking in cold water (also changed daily) is needed. Eventually, the lutefisk is ready to be cooked.
In Finland, the traditional reagent used is birch ash. It contains high amounts of potassium carbonate and bicarbonate, giving the fish a more mellow treatment than would lye. It is important not to incubate the fish too long in the lye because saponification of the fish fats may occur. The term for such spoiled fish in Finnish is saippuakala (soap fish).
After the preparation, the lutefisk is saturated with water and must therefore be cooked carefully so that it does not fall into pieces.
To create a firm consistency in lutefisk, it is common to spread a layer of salt over the fish half an hour before it is cooked. This will "release" some of the water in the fish meat. The salt must be rinsed off before cooking.
There are several ways to cook lutefisk:
Lutefisk does not need additional water for the cooking; it is sufficient to place it in a pan, salt it, seal the lid tightly, and let it steam cook under a very low heat for 20–25 minutes. An alternative is to wrap in aluminium foil and bake at 225 °C (435 °F) for 40–50 minutes.
Another option is to parboil lutefisk; wrap the lutefisk in cheesecloth and gently boil until tender. This usually takes a very short time, so care must be taken to watch the fish and remove it before it falls apart.
Lutefisk can also be boiled directly in a pan of water. Fill the pan 2/3 full with water, add 2 ts of salt per liter water, and bring the water to a boil. Add lutefisk pieces to the water until they all are covered with water, and let it simmer for 7 to 8 minutes. Carefully lift the lutefisk out of the water and serve.
Lutefisk sold in North America may also be cooked in a microwave oven. The average cooking time is 8–10 minutes per whole fish (a package of two fish sides) at high power in a covered glass cooking dish, preferably made of heat resistant glass. The cooking time will vary, depending upon the power of the microwave oven.
When cooking and eating lutefisk, it is important to clean the lutefisk and its residue off pans, plates, and utensils immediately. Lutefisk left overnight becomes nearly impossible to remove. Sterling silver should never be used in the cooking, serving or eating of lutefisk, which will permanently ruin silver. Stainless steel utensils are recommended instead.
Lutefisk is usually served with a variety of side dishes, including, but not limited to, bacon, green peas, green pea stew, potatoes, lefse, gravy, mashed rutabaga, white sauce, melted or clarified butter, syrup, geitost (goat cheese), or "old" cheese (gammelost). In the United States in particular it is sometimes eaten together with meatballs. Side dishes vary greatly from family-to-family and region-to-region, and can be a source of jovial contention when eaters of different "traditions" of lutefisk dine together.
Today, akvavit and beer often accompany the meal due to its use at festive and ceremonial occasions. This is a recent innovation, however; due to its preservative qualities, lutefisk has traditionally been a common "everyday" meal in wintertime.
The taste of well-prepared lutefisk is very mild, and often the white sauce is spiced with pepper or other strong tasting spices to bring out the flavor. In Minnesota, this method (seasoned with allspice) is common among Swedish-Americans, while Norwegian-Americans prefer to eat it unseasoned with melted butter or cream sauce.
An article in Smithsonian magazine quotes some oft-rendered tall tales regarding the origins of the dish:
- No one is quite sure where and when lutefisk originated. Both Swedes and Norwegians claim it was invented in their country. A common legend has it that Viking fishermen hung their cod to dry on tall birch racks. When some neighboring Vikings attacked, they burned the racks of fish, but a rainstorm blew in from the North Sea, dousing the fire. The remaining fish soaked in a puddle of rainwater and birch ash for months before some hungry Vikings discovered the cod, reconstituted it and had a feast. Another story tells of St. Patrick’s attempt to poison Viking raiders in Ireland with the lye-soaked fish. But rather than kill them, the Vikings relished the fish and declared it a delicacy. It makes for a great story if you don’t mind the fact that Patrick lived centuries before the Vikings attacked Ireland.
- The lack of major salt deposits in the area favored the drying process for the preservation of whitefish - a process known for millennia. Stockfish is very nutrient-rich, and one can assume that it was also consumed domestically, although it was during the boom in the stockfish trade in the late Middle Ages, the product became accessible throughout Scandinavia as well as the rest of Europe. The higher quality stockfish would be soaked in water, then boiled and eaten with melted butter. Lower grade qualities would be harder and more fuel consuming to boil and it has been suggested that adding ash from beech or birch in the boiling water, would break down the protein chains and speed up the process. The introduction of lye in the preparation process might therefore have been incidental.
Lutefisk as a Christmas season meal has gained attention in Norway over the past 20 years. The Norwegian Seafood Export Council indicated sales of lutefisk to restaurants and catering companies in Norway increased by 72% between 2005 and 2008. A 2005 survey found 20% of Norwegians ate lutefisk during the Christmas holiday season, although only 3% would consider it for their Christmas dinner.
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. St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota serves lutefisk during their famous Christmas Festival concerts. They also host an annual music festival called "Lutefest." Lutefisk, though, is not served at this festival.
Lutefisk eaters thrive on quotes and jokes from skeptics of lutefisk comparing it to everything from rat poison (which has a hint of truth to it, because of the traces of nonstandard amino acid lysinoalanine found in lutefisk due to the reaction with lye) to weapons of mass destruction. A few examples are:
Every Advent we entered the purgatory of lutefisk, a repulsive gelatinous fishlike dish that tasted of soap and gave off an odor that would gag a goat. We did this in honor of Norwegian ancestors, much as if survivors of a famine might celebrate their deliverance by feasting on elm bark. I always felt the cold creeps as Advent approached, knowing that this dread delicacy would be put before me and I'd be told, "Just have a little." Eating a little was like vomiting a little, just as bad as a lot.
Lutefisk is cod that has been dried in a lye solution. It looks like the desiccated cadavers of squirrels run over by trucks, but after it is soaked and reconstituted and the lye is washed out and it's cooked, it looks more fish-related, though with lutefisk, the window of success is small. It can be tasty, but the statistics aren't on your side. It is the hereditary delicacy of Swedes and Norwegians who serve it around the holidays, in memory of their ancestors, who ate it because they were poor. Most lutefisk is not edible by normal people. It is reminiscent of the afterbirth of a dog or the world's largest chunk of phlegm.
- Interview with Jeffrey Steingarten, author of The Man Who Ate Everything (translated quote from a 1999 article in Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet):
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.
What is special with lutefisk?
Lutefisk is the Norwegians' attempt at conquering the world. When they discovered that Viking raids didn't give world supremacy, they invented a meal so terrifying, so cruel, that they could scare people to become one's subordinates. And if I'm not terribly wrong, you will be able to do it as well.
But some people say that they like lutefisk. Do you think they tell the truth?
I do not know. Of all food, lutefisk is the only one that I don't take any stand on. I simply cannot decide whether it is nice or disgusting, if the taste is interesting or commonplace. The only thing I know, is that I like bacon, mustard and lefse. Lutefisk is an example of food that almost doesn't taste like anything, but is so full of emotions that the taste buds get knocked out.
- The Ole and Lena joke books make frequent references to lutefisk; for example, the punch line of one joke is:
Well, we tried the lutefisk trick and the raccoons went away, but now we've got a family of Norwegians living under our house!
- When Lutefisk is Outlawed, Only Outlaws Will Have Lutefisk! A bumper sticker seen around Seattle in the 1980s, parodying the gun-rights slogan of the era.
- The negative view of lutefisk exemplified in these jokes may have led Ulf Gunnarsson to write his parody Lutefisk and Yams. This take-off starts out in trochaic hexameter: "Hark and ware oh warrior, weird of Sven now hear you". The initial section uses alliteration instead of rhyme, like much Old English heroic poetry (e.g., Beowulf): "Finally pounds of pancakes paired with lingonberries." Then it switches to iambic tetrameter as it imitates Dr. Seuss: "I do not like lutefisk and yams/I do not like them Sven-I-Am".
- The Wisconsin Employees' Right to Know Law specifically exempts lutefisk in defining "toxic substances".
- "Revenge of the Lutefisk", an episode of the animated series King of the Hill, uses the dish as a key plot device. When a new Methodist minister arrives in town from Minnesota, she brings some lutefisk to a potluck welcome dinner. Bobby Hill steals and eats the entire batch, enjoying the taste despite its strong smell, and inadvertently sets in motion a chain of events that leads to the church being burned down.
- Drop Dead Gorgeous dialog:
- Brett Clemmens: [after Becky has tossed her food tray in, splattering Amber who's working in the cafeteria with its contents – Brett looks apologetic] Oh man...you got some lutefisk in your hair.
- Amber Atkins: (upbeat) Then it must be Wednesday!
- Iona Hildebrandt: (speaking to camera) Lutefisk is codfish that's been salted and soaked in lye for a week or so. It's best with lots of butter.
- In the video game Dungeons of Dredmor, there is an item called the Horadric Lutefisk Cube, which turns any item placed in it into a lutefisk. Lutefisk can be eaten, but it can also be given to the Lutefisk God.
- In the Disney animated film Frozen, a shopkeep hurls Kristoff out of his store, after which telling Anna (in a strong Norwegian accent) "I am sorry for this violence, I will add a quart of lutefisk, for good feelings."
- Danish: ludfisk or ludefisk
- Norwegian: lutefisk (earlier ludefisk spelling still sometimes used in English) or lutfisk
- Swedish: lutfisk
- Finnish: lipeäkala or livekala
- Northern Sami: lovttaguolli
- Clipfish: Salted dried fish, usually cod.
- Fish and brewis
- Bacalhau: A Portuguese dish also made of reconstituted dried fish.
- Erica Janik, Scandinavians’ Strange Holiday Lutefisk Tradition, Smithsonian, December 8, 2011.
- Jan Soppeland (2008-10-09). "Lutefisk til himmels" (in Norwegian). Aftensbladet.[dead link]
- "Lutefisk er trendy – Møre og Romsdal" (in Norwegian). NRK Nyhende. 2009-12-02.
- "Trendy med lutefisk" (in Norwegian). 2005-12-20.
- Annechen Bahr Bugge, "Helt enkelt jul", Grøstad gård, 24 November 2005
- Eric Dregni, Minnesota Marvels: Roadside Attractions in the Land of Lakes, University of Minnesota Press (September 2001), ISBN 978-0-8166-3632-7
- Manitou Messenger
- Lutefisk and Yams
- "Regulation of Industry, Buildings, and Safety" (PDF), Wisconsin Statutes (Wisconsin Legislature), 101.58 (2f), 2007–2008: 45–46, retrieved 2009-08-15, "2. "Toxic substance" does not include: ¶ [...] f. Lutefisk."
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Lutefisk.|
- Lutefisk documentary
- The History of Lutfisk
- Lutefisk for Christmas
- Clay Shirky on eating lutefisk
- Chemistry of Lutefisk (Swedish)
- Lutefisk Lament, Boone & Erickson
- O Lutefisk (Full lyrics)
- Bizarre Foods Blog Andrew Zimmern explores Lutefisk in Minnesota