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