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!