Eating Fish The Scandinavian Way

Different techniques of preserving herring have been used at different times in Norwegian history. One tradition that is believed to be very old is smoked herring. It was hung to dry from the ceiling above the open fireplace and thus acquired a smoky flavor. The smoke prevented the fish from getting moldy, and if it was lightly salted it would keep in a storehouse all winter. It was eaten either fried in its own fat on hot stones on the fireplace, or eaten raw, boiled,  fried in butter or simmered in beer.

Fermented herring seems to have been popular from the 15th to the 19th centuries and preferred by the population on the west coast. It was only slightly salted and had a strong, sour smell. In fact, the more sour it smelled the better.

In the 20th century the fermented herring slowly began to be replaced by the fully salted herring (spekesild), as well as smoked and dried herring, as every day food. Today, pickled herring is most commonly seen in the homes and hotels of Scandinavia.


On the northwest coast of Norway in February and March shoals of cod come to spawn and have done so for over a thousand years. The fishing of this cod by local fishermen is described in the sagas and referred to as an important staple food in Norway from the year 825 A.D. It was also regulated by ancient law.

The fish was preserved by being dried on racks in the open air until it was as hard as wood. It is still dried in this manner even today. It is this cod that is used in making lutefisk.

Lutefisk is mentioned in history books for the first time around 1536 by Olaus Magnus. He described its preparation in this way: "The dry stockfish [cod] is put in strong lye for two days, then rinsed in fresh water for one day before being boiled. It is served with salted butter and is highly appreciated, even by kings." Its preparation varies at different times and in different places, but this is generally how it was and is still prepared today. It was and is enjoyed all over Norway, as well as Sweden, by the both the rural and urban population.

Today, here in the Midwest, lutefisk dinners are served in many Lutheran church basements in the autumn, when the descendents of the Scandinavian immigrants flock to eat as much as they can, along with boiled potatoes and plenty of melted butter.

Another ancient technique of preserving fish that still exists today is burying it for a period of time so that it ferments and can be kept for a long time before eating. This is called gravlaks, although herring prepared in this manner is called sursild.

There are two methods of preparing gravlaks: the long-term method and the short-term method. In the long-term method the fish is put into a barrel with salt and then the barrel is buried in the ground for several months, or the fish is put directly into a hole in the ground and covered with birch bark and left for several months. In the short term method the fish is prepared in this way but is buried for just a few days, just enough to make it edible uncooked.

Today in Norway and Sweden the fish that is buried for a short time is called gravlaks, while the fish buried for a long time is called rakefisk in Norway and surfisk in Sweden.

Turn of the Century Fishing Scene

Similar to the technique of making gravlaks is the old tradition of burying shark for preservation in Iceland. A freshly caught shark is cut into pieces and well washed with seawater. The fish is then placed in a hollow dug in the sand that has also been well washed with seawater. The first piece is laid  skin side down. The following pieces are placed, one on top of the other, also skin side down.

The top layer is placed skin side up. The pile is then shaped into a rounded top. It is then completely covered with hand-sized stones. The fish is buried this way for 6-12 weeks. When the fish  feels soft to the touch or a knife easily penetrates it, it is taken out and hung to dry in a shady place for 8 or more weeks.

Sound delicious? To learn more about how these preservation techniques are chemically possible and why they were used, please read Astri Riddervold's book Lutefisk, Rakefisk and Herring in Norwegian Tradition.

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