Lutfisk, the Ninja Christmas foodon December 21st, 2011 at 9:00 am
There are many people to thank for Christmas: Jesus, for his birth; the wise-men, for the gift-giving tradition; Thomas Nast, for the face of Santa Claus; Montgomery Ward, for “Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer”; your boss, for the bonus; and Swedes for the lutfisk.
What is lutfisk? It is the ninja food of Christmas.
Pour a glass of glogg, help yourself to the herring, and I’ll tell you about it.
Lutfisk is a favorite among both Swedes and Norwegians. However, they have their different takes on it: Swedes spell it with a “t” and Norwegians add an “e” (lutefisk); Swedes boil it and Norwegians bake it.
My dad said that lutfisk kept the Swedes from starving. Believe me, with a diet of lutfisk, you will not need Jenny Craig. Straight lutfisk, without the culinary accoutrements, has the calories of a glass of water.
Lutfisk is white fish, usually cod. When my dad lived in Willmar, Minnesota, long slabs of cod/lutfisk rested against the downtown storefronts. The dogs were especially relieved to see them (if you get my drift!). Traditionally, lutfisk is preserved with lye, hence the name “lutfisk,” or “lye fish.”
Lutfisk is renowned for its odor and taste.
It has a unique scent, as something old (imagine old socks). The Vikings, who were Scandinavians, invaded Ireland. Since they were a brood of ruthless cutthroats, St. Patrick wanted a fool-proof plan to defeat them. He decided to feed them spoiled fish. To his consternation, they loved the fish! In another tale, a farmer used lutfisk to drive away coons. He got rid of the varmints, but instead of the coons, he had a Swedish family living under his front porch.
Its flavor, what can I say? I once described it as “coagulated water”. If you had a load of fish in a tank of water, then drank the water, you’re close to the flavor of lutfisk. The first rule of eating lutfisk—eat it with something else, like bacon, green peas, stewed potatoes, lefse (it goes with everything!), gravy (a white sauce), mashed rootabaga, melted butter, syrup, goat cheese, or meat balls. It is also served with akvavit or beer (what isn’t served with beer in Sweden?)
My grandmother put the lutfisk in an old curtain, then submerged it in boiling water. Boiled lutfisk is served in a bowl and resembles grapefruit sections. Norwegians bake it in a casserole dish. That helps keep it flakey. Otherwise, it’s not far from being fish chowder.
Lutfisk is unique among international cuisines. You’ll notice that it has never been hot in America. There are restaurants as Taco Bell or Lorraine Chin’s Chinese, yet I have yet to see Lutfisk Larry’s or Lutfisk Buffet. You might order a three-cheese pizza, but never a three-fish lutfisk bucket! Its taste and aroma is hard to sell. Swedes only eat it once a year. Somehow charbroiled lutfisk on the grill isn’t too appealing.
On the bright side, it is possible to minimize the smell of lutfisk by using pollock or halibut rather than cod. That might be a positive step. As an enjoyer of pollock and halibut, pollockfisk or halibutfisk might be tasty.
But we Swedes and Norwegians can’t buck tradition. Christmas without lutfisk is like Christmas without the Lucia girl, the tomtes, or Santa himself. I mean, what’s the point? Making lutfisk with halibut is like giving the Lucia a lighted miner helmet rather than the crown of candles!
Without lutfisk, Santa might as well send a fax rather than come down the chimney. He might as well ship UPS or Fed Express.
With its infamous, pungent odor and taste, lutfisk is the ninja food of Christmas. It is a celebration of by-gone times, of immigrant ancestors, of taming a new land. It is a taste of home.
So, pour on the white sauce, generously.
If Popeye the sailor was a Swede, I bet he’d prefer lutfisk to spinach.