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Lutefisk is an interesting food because, unless you speak Norwegian (lutefisk) or Swedish (lutfisk), the name alone does not shed any light on what it actually is. Making things even trickier, if one were to show lutefisk to someone who has never heard of it, he or she still probably wouldn’t know what it is.
The word “lutefisk” translates to “lye fish,” which is the first clue regarding this mystery meal, but it looks unlike any seafood most people have ever seen. It’s white, semi-translucent, and, weirdest of all, gelatinous. Honestly, it looks like a cross between fat cells and some type of jellyfish Jell-O (apologies for that mental image). Okay, enough already, what in the heck is it?
Lutefisk is whitefish — which refers to several species of finned fish such as cod, ling, or burbot — that has been air-dried and may or may not be salted. (The unsalted version is also known as “stockfish.”) It is first soaked in cold water for five or six days, with the water changed daily. The now-saturated fish is then soaked again for two days in an unchanged solution of cold water and lye. Lye, for the record, is a substance obtained by leaching ashes, and is also known as sodium hydroxide. After this weeklong process, the fish loses half of its protein and gains a jelly-like consistency. At this point it is also caustic (you may remember lye as the stuff Tyler Durden used in Fight Club to cause chemical burns and also make soap), so it needs another four to six days of soaking in cold water, refreshed daily, before it is ready to be cooked. Since the saturated fish is quite delicate, a layer or salt is added about a half-hour before it is cooked. This releases some of the water being held. It is then placed in a sealed pan and steam cooked on low heat for 20-25 minutes, or wrapped in aluminum foil and baked at 435 degrees F for 40-50 minutes.
People apparently eat it after that.
More specifically, people of Scandinavian descent eat it. And since Minnesota has a large population of immigrants from that region of the world, it is quite popular in the Twin Cities and their surrounding areas. It can be served a number of ways, but some of the more common ones are with boiled potatoes, green peas, melted butter, small pieces of bacon, horseradish, or cheese. In Minnesota, some people even add syrup! Lutefisk is also often paired with lefse, a Norwegian flatbread. All of this really varies from place to place, family to family, and person to person. As does when to eat it. Lutefisk is sporadically consumed for some holidays, with a decent portion of Norwegians and their descendants claiming it as a Christmastime dish — but not necessarily a Christmas dinner dish.
As for Minnesota, the city of Madison dubbed itself the “lutefisk capital of the world” and St. Olaf College in Northfield aligns with the Christmas mindset, and serves it during their holiday season concerts. And speaking of concerts, St. Olaf also hosts an annual spring music festival called “Lutefest.” Curiously, the dish is not served at this festival — because when it comes to lutefisk, who has time for making sense?
After all, the rules for lutefisk are quite fuzzy considering its beginning is still hotly debated. One of the most entertaining origin stories claimed that St. Patrick used the lye-soaked fish in an attempt to poison Viking invaders, who ended up liking it and declaring it a delicacy. The timing of this claim doesn’t add up (St. Patrick lived centuries before the Vikings attacked Ireland), but you should never let facts get in the way of a good story, especially when it’s a fish story.
And if all this wasn’t enough appetizing enough already, here are a couple tips (which also act as a bit of a warning): Be sure to immediately clean all lutefisk residue off of any plates, pans, or utensils used. Otherwise, if you wait, the fish will be nearly impossible to scrub clean. Additionally, sterling silver should never come into contact with the lutefisk at any point, as the metal will be permanently ruined.
On that note, bon appetite!