Lutefisk & other Christmas traditions
USA vs. Norway
Lutefisk! It is highly likely that you have an opinion on the subject. As a Norwegian American, a right of passage is gulping down the translucent cod with a puddle of butter at a heritage event, church function, or family dinner. For me, growing up in North Dakota, lutefisk was always a supplemental entrée to a more common (and some would argue more palatable) main dish.
While it is not a favorite (the most Midwestern characterization around for something you do not like), many of my relatives love it and seek it out. During my visit this past fall to the Høstfest in Minot, I was impressed at the around-the-clock lines at the lutefisk booth and all of the Norskies devouring it in record time. Good for them!
A few years ago, my family lived in Oslo for a year. Before we left, we attended a family reunion in North Dakota and were told time and again, “You’d better get used to the lutefisk.” We had visited Norway in the summer of 2012 and did not see lutefisk on one restaurant menu, but we generally accepted that it would make an appearance while we lived there. And it did finally pop up once the calendar flipped to December. Like in the United States, Norwegians turn to lutefisk near the holidays with a slight wrinkle.
I first saw it while shopping at the Coop Mega near our apartment in the Vinderen neighborhood of West Oslo. As I rolled into the fresh seafood area next to the Salma salmon, which was a staple of our Norwegian diet, I encountered a display for a lutefisk dinner. The individual cod loins were packaged and set right next to “lutefisk bacon,” which I had never heard of before. I finished my shopping and headed back to the apartment and googled it right away to check out preparation hints for a Norwegian style lutefisk dinner.
While the American version stays pretty close to the reconstituted cod with the butter concoction mentioned above, I learned that the Norwegians take it to another level. The aforementioned bacon was the first step in the Norwegian recipe, which called for frying lardons and then settling the cod into the pan with the bacon to cook in all that fatty goodness. The Norwegian site also suggested green peas to go with the ubiquitous (and delicious) boiled white potatoes.
So, armed with a recipe that intrigued me, I had to convince my family to give it a try. As a compromise, and perhaps homage to my North Dakota past, we decided to have a salmon dinner for Christmas Eve, along with a side of lutefisk. The sides of peas and potatoes worked for both, so, generally speaking, there was peace as I headed back to the Coop Mega.
On Christmas Eve, I put the salmon in the oven to roast and then turned to the lutefisk. Cooking it was as easy as frying the bacon and then dropping the cod into the pan. It cooked very quickly and without the fragrance that can sometimes accompany it in the United States. With everything made, we sat down, and all four family members had a taste. It was generally well accepted, with me, not unexpectedly, eating the most. The bacon adds a smoky finish to the briny cod, which works quite well with the peas and potatoes.
We did see lutefisk on a Christmas menu or two around Oslo, but by far, the two most popular items were ribbe, which is roasted pork belly, usually served with a side of cabbage, and pinnekjøtt, huge lamb ribs that are fork tender. Both are excellent choices if you are looking to embrace additional Norwegian traditions, and recipes are all over the internet. Leslie would argue that they are the only choice if the other is lutefisk.
This will be the third Christmas since our return to from Norway, and we have yet to remake Norwegian lutefisk, with the forecast unclear for this December. One item that we will make this winter is our version of a Bergen fiskesuppe, as it is one of my favorite foods in the entire world. This creamy soup can be made many ways, but I prefer it with chunks of cod, potato mixed with shrimp and scallops….yum!
Merry Christmas—God jul—and if you decide to serve lutefisk, consider trying it the Norwegian way, and let us know how it went!
This article originally appeared in the December 13, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American.