Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Lutefisk: It's Not So Bad

If you read my post about lutefisk yesterday, two things should have been clear. First, that I am not a fan of the gelatinous whitefish holiday staple that is lutefisk. Second, and more importantly, that even though I am not a fan of the dish, there are a lot of people who are and I think that lutefisk has gotten a bad rap over the years. In an effort to remedy this situation I want to put the spotlight on some other Nordic dishes that are much stranger, in some cases, much more dangerous and would make for a much bigger surprise were you to find them on the table at your family's Thanksgiving or Christmas get-together.

So, here it is, the top five strangest Nordic dishes:

5. Gravlax: Number five on this list is a food that can be found throughout Scandinavia by various names, including gravad lax (Sweden, Denmark), gravlaks (Norway), graavilohi (Finnland) and graflax (Iceland). This dish dates back to the middle ages and found its popularity throughout Scandinavia via trade amongst different countries.

One would think that it must be a very tasty appetizer due to its long history and widespread acceptance throughout the various Nordic countries, right? Maybe it is. If you've tried it, please let me know.

Gravlax made this list (just barely I might add) because of the way it was historically prepared. During the Middle Ages, gravlax was made by fishermen, who salted the salmon and lightly fermented it by burying it in the sand above the high-tide line. The word gravlax comes from the Scandinavian word grav, which means literally "grave" or "hole in the ground" (in Swedish, Norwegian, Danish and Estonian), and lax (or laks), which means "salmon", thus gravlax is "salmon dug into the ground."

Today, that fermentation process is no longer used, rather the fish is cured in salt, sugar, and dill. That actually sounds tasty to me. How about you?

Danger factor: None.

Surströmming: The name means "soured herring" and is considered a Swedish delicacy. The herring are caught in spring, when it is in prime condition and they just about to spawn. Then, the herring are fermented in barrels for one to two months, then tinned where the fermentation continues. Half a year to a year later, gases have built up sufficiently for the once cylindrical tins to bulge into a more rounded shape.

Weren't we all warned as kids/young adults that bulging cans in the cupboard or on the market shelves were never to be consumed for fear of botulism? I'm just asking. In this case species of Haloanaerobium bacteria are responsible for the in-can ripening/bulging. Also, these bacteria produce carbon dioxide and a number of compounds that account for the unique odor: pungent propionic acid, hydrogen sulfide, butyric acid, and vinegary acetic acid. Now here's where it all comes together:

Danger factor: Certain airlines have banned the tins on their flights, considering the pressurized containers to be potentially dangerous. In April 2006, several major airlines, including Air France and British Airways, banned the fish citing that the pressurized cans of fish are potentially explosive.

Now imagine this, you're cruising at 35,000 feet in the middle of a 10 hour flight home from your holiday in Sweden when you hear a loud bang or explosion. Then the air in the airplane's cabin is filled with the smell of rotten-egg, rancid-butter and vinegar. And you've still got at least a couple hours before you are over North-America, where you could land and deplane. Doesn't sound like a very fun scenario to me.

Hákarl or kæstur hákarl: This one is is from our Icelandic brethren and the name translates into "fermented shark" (Now we're getting to the really good stuff, right? Typically made from basking sharks that have been fermented for 6-12 weeks underground, cured and then hung to dry for 4-5 months, Hákarl is known for its "ammonia-rich" smell. Mmmmmm...ammonia...

Danger Factor: What makes this dish interesting is that consumption of this type of shark without proper preparation would be quite dangerous. In fact, due to this species of shark's high content of uric acid and trimethylamine oxide, it would be downright poisonous. It's only during the fermentation process that these toxins are flushed from the sharks body. If the process isn't done properly, some of these poisons can still be found in the shark meat.

The best that can be said about this dish (and it is said by some) is that Hákarl is an acquired taste.

2. Smalahove: The only non-fish entry to this list comes in at number two on today's list. Smalahove, also called Smalehovud or Skjelte, is a Norwegian dish that's typically served up at, or around, Christmas. The reason this dish made the list is because of its danger factor and because its made of sheep's head.

The. Entire. Sheep's. Head.

Once only a food for the poor, but now considered a delicacy, Smalahove is prepared by torching the skin and fleece of the head, removing the brain and salting the head. Then The head is boiled for about 3 hours.

Danger factor: While this dish may seem a bit more benign than the previous dishes listed, Smalahove makes number two on this list due to the fact that the EU forbids the production of smalahove from adult sheep, due to fear of the possibility of transmission of scrapie, a deadly, degenerative prion disease of sheep and goats, even though scrapie does not appear to be transmissible to humans. It is now only allowed to be produced from the heads of lambs.

Rakfisk: This traditional eastern Norwegian dish is the ultimate in my book. Made typically from fermented trout or char, this dish is usually served sliced or as a fillet with raw red onion, lefse, sour cream, and almond potatoes. Some also use mustard-sauce, a mild form of mustard with dill. It is not recommended that Rakfisk be eaten by people with a reduced immune defense or by pregnant women.

Danger factor: This "delicacy" is number one on the list for a reason. The preparation is ver stringent and if done wrong the result can be deadly. You see, to make Rakfisk you need to gut a fish, put it into a vinger solution for a short while, then treat with salt and sugar before burying the fish for two to three months. The danger is that if the Rakfisk comes in contact with with soil there is a great risk of the "wrong" bacteria growing in the fish, especially Clostridium botulinum which causes botulism.

Now, I can't speak to the veracity of this, but I have heard anecdotally about a family in Norway who, a couple weeks after burying their Rakfisk, found their dog dead on the back steps after having dug up the fermenting fish. To me, it would seem that Rakfisk is the Norwegian answer to Fugu and that consuming it would be the ultimate act of culinary bravery.

Yet, even with all that, approximately 500 tonnes of rakfisk are consumed in Norway annually. There's even a festival devoted to this questionable dish!

So there you have it. Five different Nordic dishes that would make anyone glad to see lutefisk as an alternative for dinner. Now, there may be some of you out there who are much braver than I and want the recipes so they can try some of these dishes. You'll have to look elsewhere, I'm afraid, because I don't want to be held liable for a shark attack or botulism poisoning.

Have a great day everyone!


MJ said...

Oooh yummy. Glad I already ate lunch. I wholeheartedly agree that Rakfisk is #1. I was going to suggest that yesterday, but waited to see what your #1 was. It is without a doubt the most disgusting thing I've ever eaten. Period.

L-Jay said...

You mentioned Lutefisk in the last post - but I think it deserves a 'danger' mention here too...lol.

To get Lutefisk to the 'jelly' state the fish needs to be soaked in caustic soda (very poisonous) for two days then soaked in water 4-6 days to get the poison out again. If you soak the fish too long in the caustic soda the fat deposits turn into soap!

Then the fish is steamed in a pan or oven and eaten.

Sons of Norway said...

Very true, L-Jay and a good point as well. However, in the grand scheme of things, soap probably isn't as bad as botulism, uric acid or the other stuff on the danger list.

Anonymous said...

Smalahove isn't bad if you can get past your food staring at you, and its interesting to see it prepared (essentially run through a flamethrower, at least at the place in Voss I had it).

I'm surprised no mention of pinnekjøtt... definately better than lutefisk for a holiday meal.

Sons of Norway said...

Thanks for the comment about pinnekjøtt. I'm sure that as the holidays get closer, we may be touching on that tasty dish more.

Mike said...

Gravlax is very good. I've made it for years for Christmas and other holidays. Even non-norwegians like it. (Well, unless someone tells them it isn't cooked.)

For serving to those with weakened immune systems, an added safeguard is to freeze the gravlax, then defrost it in the refrigerator. Its better to freeze the gravlax after preparing it than before (the amount of water that is drawn out during the curing process means a lot less damage to the first)

Mexican Viking said...

I love the Gravlax! The lutefisk, not so much. I think it was a texture thing. I had this in Mjondolen for my first Christmas in Norway.
My wifes grandfater made the Gravlax from trout we caught in some lake in Norway. It sounds like "ushan" but I don't know how it's spelled. Anyone have a good recipe for Gravlax?