Lutefisk really isn’t that bad, but Nigerians might have a better idea


Lutefisk is nothing but a way to make fish that has been dried rock hard edible. You’ve got your dried fish that you’ve stockpiled for the winter, and it’s now got the solidity of a hunk of plywood, and in order to eat it, you soak it in a caustic mixture of lye and then wash all the lye out (important step). Then, instead of inedible slabs, you’ve got a fish-flavored gelatinous blob of protein. The flavor hasn’t really changed, but the texture is radically different and unexpected for fish, which is where most of the objections to it come from.

But that’s not the interesting bit in this story of the major producer of lutefisk in the US (located in Minnesota, of course). They mention that consumption of lutefisk is in steady decline, but the company isn’t panicking, because they’ve found a new market: Nigerian immigrants. They don’t want the lutefisk, but they do want the hard-dried stockfish it’s made from — they have their own methods of extracting tasty protein from it, which involves simply boiling the stuff to make a fish stock for soups in Nigerian cuisine. There’s a Norwegian-Nigerian connection!

Famine or no famine, stockfish fit into the preexisting culinary tradition. “This kind of intense, slightly fermented flavor was already part of traditional Nigerian cuisine,” Ochonu says. While fermented beans and nuts are used in dishes across the country to supply the desired taste, stockfish’s unique, pungent flavor can’t be provided by locally caught fish. Even better, it’s a protein source that keeps without refrigeration. (That said, Ochonu specifies, stockfish is still more common in eastern Nigerian food than in western and northern Nigeria.)

Today, stockfish is an essential ingredient in Nigerian cuisine, although for some it conjures painful wartime memories. Still imported from northern Norway, it’s cut into chunks, softened in boiling water, and used as a base for Nigerian soups and sauces such as efo riro, spinach soup, edikang ikong, a vegetable soup, and egusi, a soup made with melon seeds.

Now I have a craving to visit a Nigerian restaurant — we have some, but they’re all concentrated in the Twin Cities, and we’re kind of snowbound out here right now. When the thaw comes!

Comments

  1. says

    No, lutefisk (or Cod a la Drano) isn’t that bad. IT’S WORSE. Seriously, it is an abomination worse than anything Lovecraft ever dreamed of in his worst nightmares. Lye isn’t a cooking ingredient, have you ever read the MSDS for the damn stuff? It’s used for opening clogged drains and stripping paint for jeebus sake.

  2. says

    Lutefisk is nothing but a way to make fish that has been dried rock hard edible. You’ve got your dried fish that you’ve stockpiled for the winter, and it’s now got the solidity of a hunk of plywood, and in order to eat it, you soak it in a caustic mixture of lye and then wash all the lye out (important step). Then, instead of inedible slabs, you’ve got a fish-flavored gelatinous blob of protein.

    That’s utter nonsense. Lye is totally unnecessary (and, indeed, some would argue counterproductive) to make salted cod edible. All you need to do is soak the fish for about 24 hours making sure that you change the water a few times. That’s the way the rest of the world does it and it works well in dishes like bacalao a la vizaína in Spain, ackee and saltfish in Jamaica, the various bacalao in Brazil, etc..

    The flavor hasn’t really changed, but the texture is radically different and unexpected for fish, which is where most of the objections to it come from.

    The texture becomes gelatinous like and the color changes from off white to a translucent, pure white. However, it’s not true that the flavor does not change. Cod is not a flavorful fish to begin with. The lye treatment finishes off what little flavor it ever had. Despite the fact that you can smell lutefisk being heated, it only has the vaguest memory of a hint of having once possessed a flavor. Lutefisk is, basically, an unflavored gelatin like food stuff. Serve it with butter and it tastes like butter, serve it with a white sauce and it tastes like a white sauce, etc..

  3. Snarki, child of Loki says

    “Lutefisk is, basically, an unflavored gelatin like food stuff. Serve it with butter and it tastes like butter, serve it with a white sauce and it tastes like a white sauce, etc..”

    So, serve it with garlic, toss out the lutefisk and eat the garlic?

    Sounds like a plan.

  4. says

    Also, when it’s served correctly, you can think of it more as a fish-flavored hunk of butter.

    And it’s not hakarl or surströmming.

  5. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    Having eaten some of these stews in West Africa, I can attest to their being quite good. Usually, they are served with rice, corn mush or pounded yams (think really sticky mashed potatoes)–and it is ALWAYS eaten with the hands.

  6. cartomancer says

    I’m sold on gelatinous blob of protein, but the “tastes of fish” bit gets a definite no from me.

    If god had intended us to eat fish then he would a) have existed, b) have made it taste nice, and c) not put it underwater where humans can’t breathe. That’s a clue right there.

  7. rabbitbrush says

    A friend grew up in the Ballard part of Seattle, which is where her grandparents had immigrated to from Norway at the turn of the last century. She said they ate lutefisk often. Her grandmother soaked the dried cod in the requisite lye solution, but then had the brilliant way of rinsing it by putting the lye-soaked fish in the toilet tank. Every time the toilet was flushed, it rinsed the fish. No additional wasted water! So frugal! So aromatic!

  8. rabbitbrush says

    Come to think of it, her grandmother may not have used lye to loosen up that dried cod, but just used the water in the toilet tank to soak and rinse it, all at the same time. Seems like a clever way to deal with it.

  9. Jazzlet says

    Andrea if you haven’t tasted any Nigerian dishes using stockfish you simply can’t know that.

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