Nourished and inspired by the sea
Bergen fish soup evokes memories of Norway with a medley of seafood
Norwegian American Weekly
I’ve been trying to learn more about my Norwegian-American heritage for years now, and one of the best ways in is through the food. I’m Norwegian, 100%. I’m also American, through and through. As the daughter of a man who left Norway as a preteen in the 1950s—and a mother who is also Norwegian, by way of North Dakota—I grew up with a taste of both cultures. But the Norwegian touches that traveled to America with my family generations ago are like a time capsule from a time well before my birth.
Norway has changed dramatically since my family left. My grandmother would talk about this when she’d return from trips to visit relatives still in Norway. I’ll never know the country she knew, in the way she knew it. I’ll never truly know the town outside of Oslo where she raised a family. And I’ll never know the Bergen where she would step foot onto a ship and watch her country fade as they sailed away, across an ocean to a new land and a new life.
But I try, oh how I try. I have been to Oslo, wandered the narrow streets of Bergen. I have seen its seven verdant hills surrounding the town and its harbor. And I have visited its popular fish market. But I can only imagine what Bergen looked like in April 1956, from the eyes of someone knowing she might never see it again. I have not spent enough time in Norway, not yet. I long to go back and soak up the country of my family’s former home. But even as I embrace life in Seattle—the Scandinavian-rich city where my family settled decades ago—I seek to understand more about Norway and my family’s history. And I do, a little by little, with every Norwegian dish I prepare for my own family.
Most recently it was Bergen fish soup, a dish inspired by the fish market in that coastal city. According to Norwegian TV chef Andreas Viestad who writes about the soup in Kitchen of Light, the classic way of making it is with homemade pollock stock. But of course, as with any classic recipe, variations abound and recipes evolve over time. I have made the soup with salmon and shellfish, and I have also made it with whitefish and a touch of smoked salmon for extra flavor. Signe Johansen, author of Secrets of Scandinavian Cooking: Scandilicious, even adds a little brandy to the creamy soup, a touch that adds complexity. The version I’m sharing here starts with a recipe from the blog Nordic Nibbler, but I used a homemade stock made from the bones and remnants of Copper River sockeye salmon and used equal parts ling cod and rockfish for the fish. Though not traditional, I also added a little smoked salmon for flavor and color.
As with many Norwegian recipes, Bergen fish soup is rather simple and allows the flavors of the ingredients to shine. Start with quality ingredients and the rest is simple.
When I make it, I think about the hot summer when I visited Norway. I also think about my dad and grandparents who set sail from Oslo to Bergen, then Bergen to New York. I may never be able to travel back in time to that moment when my family sailed away from Norway to their new home, but now every time I make this soup I think about those dear people and the way one decision rolled into another, bringing us here to where we are today. It’s as though this one simple soup holds a history and memories that may be outside my grasp, but will always hold a place in my heart.
Bergen fish soup (Bergensk Fiskesuppe)
8 cups fish stock (good quality, ideally unsalted)
2 carrots, peeled and diced into 1/2-inch cubes
2 celery stalks, sliced ¼-inch thick
1 small celeriac, peeled and diced into 1/2-inch cubes
1 parsnip, peeled and diced into 1/2- inch cubes
1 tbsp. all-purpose flour
1 1/4 cup whipping cream
2 tbsps. good quality red wine vinegar (to taste)
1 tbsp. sugar (to taste)
1 to 1 1/2 lbs. assorted fish like cod, halibut, salmon, and monkfish tail (skin and bones removed), cut into 1-inch cubes
1/4 pound smoked salmon, cut into 1-inch cubes (optional)
4 oz. fish dumplings (optional)
Salt and freshly-ground white pepper
Chopped chives, for garnish
In a large pot, bring the fish stock to a boil. Add the carrots, celery, celeriac, and parsnip and simmer for five minutes.
In a small bowl, whisk together the flour and cream. Stir it into the soup and return to a boil. Add red wine vinegar and sugar to taste; you want a balance between sweet and sour.
Add the fish and fish dumplings, if using, and simmer for 6 to 7 minutes, or until the fish is cooked through. If you’re using the smoked salmon, add it now and simmer just until it heats through.
Taste the soup—if it needs a little salt and pepper, add it now. If you’re using the smoked salmon, it might not need any salt. Pour into bowls, garnish with chopped chives, and serve.
Daytona Strong is a Seattle-based food writer and recipe developer. She writes about her family’s Scandinavian heritage through the lens of food at www.outside-oslo.com. Find her on Facebook www.facebook.com/OutsideOslo; Twitter @daytonastrong; Pinterest @daytonastrong; and Instagram @daytonastrong.