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Lutefisk

[loo-tuh-fisk]

Lutefisk (lutfisk) (in Southern Norway, [lʉːtfɪsk] in Central and Northern Norway, Sweden and the Swedish-speaking areas in Finland (lipeäkala in Finnish)) is a traditional dish of the Nordic countries made from stockfish (air-dried whitefish) or dried/salted whitefish (klippfisk) and soda lye (lut). Its name literally means "lye fish", because it is made with caustic soda or potash lye.

General

Preparation

Lutefisk is made from air-dried or salted/dried whitefish (normally cod, but ling is also used), prepared with lye, in a sequence of particular treatments. The watering steps of these treatments differs 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 will swell during this soaking, attaining an even larger size than in its original (undried) state, while its protein content decreases by more than 50 percent, producing its famous jelly-like consistency. When this treatment is finished, the fish (saturated with lye) has a pH value of 11–12, and is therefore caustic. 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 hydrocarbonate, giving the fish more mellow treatment than sodium hydroxide (lyestone). It is important to not incubate the fish too long in the lye, because saponification of the fish fats may occur, effectively rendering the fish fats into soap. The term for such spoiled fish in Finnish is saippuakala (soap fish).

Cooking

After the preparation, the lutefisk is saturated with water and must therefore be cooked carefully so that it does not fall into pieces.

Lutefisk does not need any 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. It is also possible to do this in an oven. There, the fish is put in an ovenproof dish, covered with aluminium foil, and baked 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 is ready to fall apart. Prepare a white sauce to serve over the lutefisk.

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 of 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.

Eating

In the Nordic Countries, the "season" for lutefisk starts early in November and typically continues through Christmas. Lutefisk is also very popular in Nordic-North American areas of Canada, especially the prairie regions and the large Finnish community at Sointula on Malcolm Island in the province of British Columbia, and the United States, particularly in the Upper Midwest and Northwest. From October to February, there are numerous LuteFisk feeds in cities and towns around Puget Sound.

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 (and most eaters, regardless of side dish preferences, will argue that these beverages complement the meal perfectly). This is a recent innovation, however; due to its preservative qualities, lutefisk has traditionally been a common "everyday" meal in wintertime.

The dish has sometimes subjected Nordic-Americans to jokes about the personality traits "produced" as a side effect of the consumption of chemically-treated white fish. Lutefisk prepared from cod is somewhat notorious, even in Scandinavia, for its intense odor. Conversely, lutefisk prepared from pollock or haddock contains almost no odor.

Lutefisk has its fair share of devotees: in 2001, Norwegians consumed 2,055 tonnes of lutefisk in their homes and approximately 560 tonnes in restaurants. (To put this quantity in perspective, 2400 tons would fill approximately 80 full size semi trucks or a medium length goods train). Annual sales of lutefisk in North America exceed those in Norway.

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 flavour.

Origin

Origins

The origins of lutefisk are a subject of debate. Some accounts mention a fish accidentally dropped in a washing bowl containing lye, and because of family poverty, the fish had to be eaten. Other stories discuss fires of various kinds, because ashes of wood combined with water will create lye. One possible scenario is that drying racks for stockfish caught fire, followed by days of rain, and then the fish, being too valuable to throw away even in this condition, was picked from the ashes, cleaned, prepared, and eaten. However, the use of softening with lye is actually a fairly common practice with many kinds of food (such as hominy), so it may have been a deliberate and not accidental move.

Traces in literature

The point at which people first began eating lutefisk is also debated. Some enthusiasts claim that the dish has been consumed since the time of the Vikings, while others believe that its origins occurred in the 16th-century Netherlands. At any rate, it is generally agreed that the first written mention of "lutefisk" is in a letter written by Swedish king Gustav I in 1540, and the first written description of the preparation process is in Swedish archbishop Olaus Magnus's (1490–1557) personal writings from 1555. In Norway, author Henry Notaker (in the encyclopedia Apetittleksikon) states that the earliest historical traces are from the late 18th century in the southeastern region of the country. Additionally, a classic Norwegian cookbook ("Hanna Winsnes") from 1845 tells about how to make lye for lutefisk from a combination of birch ash, limestone, and water.

Folklore holds that lutefisk originated during the Viking pillages of Ireland, when St. Patrick sent men to pour lye on stores of dried fish on the longships, with the hope of poisoning the Vikings. However, rather than dying of poisoning, the Vikings declared lutefisk a delicacy. Some Scandinavian descendants claim that their strength and longevity are derived from eating lutefisk at least once a year.

Lutefisk and Norwegians

A misconception is that lutefisk is most popular in Norway. In fact, lutefisk is today more commonly eaten by Norwegian Americans and Canadians of Norwegian descent than by their counterparts in Norway. In America, two cities: Glenwood, Minnesota, and Madison, Minnesota, claim to be the "lutefisk capital of the world." A survey performed by the National Information Office for Meat in Norway claimed that as few as 2 percent of Norwegians consume lutefisk on Christmas Eve (while 52 percent dine on rib roast, the most popular Christmas dinner in Norway), while 20 percent eat lutefisk before Christmas.

Lutefisk humor

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 unnatural 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."

"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 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:

Well, we tried the lutefisk trick and the raccoons went away, but now we've got a family of Norwegians living under our house!

Or this variation of O Tannenbaum:
O lutefisk, O lutefisk, how pungent your aroma / O lutefisk, O lutefisk, you put me in a coma

  • (A version specific to Washington State uses: "You smell just like Tacoma," a reference to the pulp mills that used to pollute the air around the city.)

  • 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".
  • Other

    Spellings

    • Danish: ludfisk or ludefisk
    • Norwegian: lutefisk (earlier ludefisk (Danish) spelling still sometimes used in English) or lutfisk
    • Swedish: lutfisk
    • Finnish: lipeäkala

    See also

    References

    External links

    Notes

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