Lutefisk is made from stockfish (air-dried fish) that receives a lengthy and rough treatment before cooking. After drying, the fish is reconstituted in cold water for a week, then soaked in a lye (caustic soda) solution for two days. The name “lutefisk” literally means lye fish and bears its name from this treatment. The lye dissolves the muscle proteins, causes the fish to swell to more than its original size, and makes it very poisonous. To make the fish edible again, it needs to soak in water for another ten days – ready to cook and enjoy! Lutefisk is actually very easy to cook; it contains enough water to boil itself! Simply put it in a pan with a tight lid and cook it over medium heat for 10 minutes.
The Nordic tradition of lutefisk is very old. It was first mentioned in literature in 1555, when Swedish archbishop Olaus Magnus described how to prepare and eat lutefisk. He also mentioned that the dish was “highly valued, even by kings”. A kind of lutefisk also featured in the first ever printed Danish cookbook from 1616, even though Danes don’t eat lutefisk nowadays. Statistics show that the biggest consumers of lutefisk are middle-aged, medium income, highly educated men – but the women are catching up.
Nobody knows for sure when or how lutefisk was invented, but the myth is that a storage shed full of stockfish burned down after being struck by lightning. The stockfish was left lying in the highly alkaline ashes that became wet from the rain. Not willing to let the food go to waste, the fishermen washed the fish thoroughly in water to clean off the ashes. And with that, lutefisk was born.
It may not be the first thing on your mind at Christmastime, but lutefisk is actually quite healthy. It contains very low salt, some vitamin D and B, and plenty of selenium. Most of the fat has been washed away in the preparation, so 100 grams of fish contains only 50 calories.
That being said, lutefisk is enjoyed with trimmings that bring the calories right back up where they belong. Potatoes, mushy peas and a generous amount of bacon are regulars on the plate. Other trimmings vary depending on where in Norway you are – people may use salted butter, white sauce, mustard, golden syrup or brown goat cheese. Some even eat lutefisk like a kebab, rolled up in a lefse.
There are also a few different types of lutefisk available on the market. The real lutefisk is made from fish that has been dried in open air for several months, then matured in a storage shed for another few months. This helps give the lutefisk its particular flavour and yellow colour. In recent years there has been an increasing demand for a milder, whiter lutefisk that looks more appealing for urban people and restaurants. To achieve this, the fish is artificially dried in a wind tunnel for only ten days. Rural Norwegians balk at this, since this leaves the fish with no taste at all. However, this milder flavour is more suitable for recruiting new lutefisk lovers. The favourite variety for Norhtern Norwegians is the rotskjær (root cut) lutefisk, where the backbone is removed before drying for only 6 weeks. This makes the flesh more exposed to sun and air, giving it a deep yellow colour and stronger flavour.
One final point: Don’t let anyone fool you into thinking you are buying “fresh” lutefisk – it doesnt exist. Real lutefisk will have been dead for at least six months!