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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 often served with a variety of side dishes, including: 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. In Sweden lutfisk is a part of the Christmas tradition and is eaten with boiled potatoes, peas, white sauce and allspice.
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. In Minnesota, this method (seasoned with allspice) is common among Swedish-Americans, while Norwegian-Americans often 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:
The actual reason is probably that 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.
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.
2. "Toxic substance" does not include: ¶ [...] f. Lutefisk.
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