Saturday, December 22, 2007

What about that lutefisk?

If you were reading carefully about my time in Oslo, you’ll remember that I promised to let you know if I tried lutefisk. (If you haven’t been hanging on my every word, the description as I wrote while in Norway is that lutefisk, or lye fish, is made by soaking dried cod (stockfish) and mixing it with ashes (lye) until the proteins break down and it gains a jelly-like consistency. The likely apocryphal story I heard about it was that legend has the dish being developed when a stockfish-drying rack caught fire and then was quenched by rain, providing the stockfish, the ashes, and the water, and the loss of a winter’s worth of food providing the hunger-driven necessity of trying the resulting fish which the people turned out to like just as much as the original stockfish.) While in Oslo, my only evidence that this Norwegian specialty was popular were the signs in the folk museum and a book I found on the importance of lutefisk and other unusual fish preparations (including a special way of fermenting – read: rotting – salmon called gravlaks) in the lean times of the past and in maintaining Norwegian culture in the present day. Once in Tromsø, however, I saw for myself that lutefisk remains a popular Christmas food.

On Saturday, I went to walk around downtown during the few hours of light and came across a Christmas market set up in the main pedestrian street, which was completely full of sales stalls and trailers, throngs of people, and even a fire and haybale benches right in the middle of the street where women were serving coffee and handing out samples of lefse spread with butter and cinnamon sugar.

It was quite a street party for a cold, dark December day. And certainly the place to be to buy pre-Christmas necessities. And of course among those pre-Christmas necessities was a lot of fish.

All the plastic bags on this table were full of fish of different kinds – gravlaks, lutefisk, sei (saithe), and of course many preparations of torsk (cod). Even as fish has become less important in many parts of the world including Norway, it holds its traditional role here in the north.

One of the most traditional of these torsk preparations is stockfish, which is dried to produce a hard board-like piece of fish that can easily be stored for many months (the original reason for its popularity in the era before refrigeration).

But I had my eye on getting a piece of lutefisk to try. The man who sold my piece from out of his trailer-store seemed dubious – probably because I asked for a very small piece and had to ask in English. Obviously, I had no idea what I was doing.

Here’s what I got:

Yup, still with skin and fins. I poked it, and it did feel kind of like jelly. I smelled it, and it smelled like fish.

And then, I have to admit, I had no idea what to do next. As far as I could tell, you just boil and eat it right like that. But, hoping for some instructions, I planned to take it back with me to Denmark and eat it there once I could use my internet sleuthing skills to look up some cooking advice. And alas, once back in Denmark, the fish had begun to smell much more insistently and I became increasingly dubious…and I never actually ate it. I had good intentions, I promise, but it didn’t quite work out as planned (story of my life, folks). So the moral of the story is that if you want to know about lutefisk, you’ll have to find out yourself. All the Norwegians I asked said they liked it, and I hear it can be found in Minnesota (even in gas station stores!), so maybe it’s worth a try.

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