Recipe spectacular: Bury your fish for better flavor and other questionable Norwegian advice.

A fishing boat in Norway’s Lofoten Islands. Author Eric Dregni
spent a year on a Fulbright Fellowship in Trondheim, Norway,
where his first child was born.
Images courtesy of the author.

This is the first in a series running this week on authors’ favorite holiday recipes.


The fishmonger at the Ravnkloa seafood shop in Trondheim tricked me. Seeing a curious and gullible tourist, he asks me if I’d like to taste a bite of dark red fish meat called “hval” that had been marinating. Always eager to try something new, I take the slice he carved with his razor sharp knife. I munch on a big piece that tastes more like beef than cod and asked the name of the fish. He smirks and replies, “In English, it’s called ‘whale.’ ” After that, I switch to the Fiskehallen, a less touristy fish shop, for all my fish needs.

My pregnant wife Katy and I are living for a year in Trondheim, Norway, and I’m determined to try all kinds of fish, but swimming mammals like whale was not on the list. I prefer herring, or the “silver of the sea,” which was always a special treat growing up in Minnesota and now at the Fiskehallen the variety is mouth-watering: with juniper berries, with rømme (35% fat sour cream), with mustard dill, as matjes herring filets, etc. I dream of someday traveling to the World’s Longest Herring Table in Florø, Norway, in June where a 400-meter-long table extends through town and is piled high with all sorts of herring.

In the meantime, I’ll have to be content with a new-found treat: herring cakes, essentially a fried patty of ground herring, egg, and bread crumbs. I fry them in a little oil, garnish them with lemon and serve them to Katy. Her face scrunches up when she eats them and asks me, “Why would you want to mash up fish fillets into a little ball anyway?”

Our Norwegian friend Inger is equally disgusted. “You ate herring cakes? Ugh! My mother once tried to save money at home so she said we were going to eat herring for weeks. We had salt herring and herring cakes and now I can never eat them.” Even so, Inger gives us a jar of pickled herring for Christmas.

I always viewed pickled herring as a special treat, but to most Norwegians it’s considered poor food because it is the cheapest fish. Just as in the past when torsk, or cod, was daily fare and the elusive salmon was reserved for special occasions. Now fish farms in the fjords make salmon as cheap as the overfished cod.

Inger tells me that the other food staple growing up was hval. “When I was a girl, whale meat was very cheap. I do like whale meat, but it depends how it’s cooked. Sometimes it can taste like tran (cod liver oil) if they don’t cook it right.” Even though the Fiskehallen has large posters advertising whale meat, I don’t feel right about munching on Moby Dick. Perhaps I’ve been exposed to too many Greenpeace pamphlets showing the slaughter of these poor mammals.

Instead of whale, I can try the fish balls or cod tongues if I feel adventurous. For the uninitiated, though, the fishmonger at the Fiskehallen recommends klippefisk, or dried cod. “It’s a little snack that you can eat called ‘Lofoten Candy,’ ” he says, in reference to the rugged Lofoten Islands where giant schools of cod are fished.

My classmate Helen loves klippefisk. “It’s mostly what children eat, though.” Children? “Oh yes, they have it as a snack. I only have it about once a month now and it reminds me of my childhood.” Not to burst her bubble, I try to hide that eating klippefisk seems like chewing on fishy shoe leather and the package gives my whole backpack the smell of the sea—and lures alley cats to follow me around.

In spite of the value placed on fresh fish, I read that in Norway’s past, fresh food was considered unhealthy. Meats and fish were usually salted. With the rest of the fish, creative Norwegians either boiled, buried, dried, pickled, or soaked it in lye. No wonder a Portuguese fishmonger in Bergen lamented, “Norway has the best fish in the world, but they don’t know how to cook it!”

A fish market in Bergen, Norway.

I’m sure the Mediterranean countries have fantastic recipes, but I find Trondheim to be a fish-eaters’ heaven with unusual catches of the day including peppered mackerel, curried herring, smoked salmon, dried cod, salt cod, cod tongues, and marinated whale. Still, though, we haven’t found the recipe to write home about.

To find the best fish, I vow to try the whole range of fish products at the Fiskehallen. The daily catch of cod to trout to shrimp to halibut is displayed. Even so, the finicky older women of Trondheim waiting in line are very careful to get the best. Perhaps they remember the Norwegian expression, “Take everything for good fish,” meaning you’re a gullible fool if you assume that any fish is edible and fresh.

Truly fresh fish is highly prized in Norway. An acquaintance named Hans Erik tells me that even a few hours is too long for some connoisseurs. “I know a fisherman who will only eat fish on his boat, so it’s the freshest possible. The first thing he does on his boat is start the water boiling. Then he throws in his line. That way, the fish is barely even out of the water before it’s on your plate. He won’t eat fish any other way.” I’ve heard the Norwegian expression for such fresh cod is called “blodfersk,” or blood-fresh. I think that if that’s the only way to have truly fresh fish, I’ve never had it.

Perhaps in hopes of not having to eat all these bizarre specialties, my Katy asks her Norwegian midwife, Sigrid, if there is any food she should avoid eating now that she’s pregnant. “I don’t think so. You can eat what you want. Well, some people say that pregnant women shouldn’t eat rakfisk. I don’t know what it is in English, ‘rotten fish’? But if you like it, I think it’s OK.”

Rakfisk in our Norwegian cookbook is defined as “fermented fish.” At the Fiskehallen, we ask the fishmonger about this dangerous-sounding dish, but he says it’s a delicacy only available at Christmas. Katy breathes a sigh of relief knowing she has a brief reprieve until December.

Instead, our friend Henning recommends the cured salmon, which is a special treat around the holiday season as well. He explains, “Gravet laks, or cured salmon, is similar to rakfisk, but better. To make gravet laks, we catch the salmon, put some dill on it and then bury it in the ground for a few days. It sounds strange, but it’s very good!” He explains that ‘gravet’ means ‘buried,’ like ‘grave’ in English.” I just hope it’s not a premonition.

Henning asks the fishmonger at the Fiskehallen where they bury their salmon. The fishmonger replies, “We have a new way to make gravet laks without burying it now, so there’s no risk of botulism.” Henning is obviously disappointed that his favorite food has somehow become sanitized and safer. Back in our apartment when we smother the cured salmon in a mustard-dill sauce and wash it down with aquavit, Henning is satisfied.

Katy loves the fresh taste of gravet laks and begins to crave it to satisfy the little Norwegian baby in her belly. Finally we’ve found the best recipe for fish that somehow comforts us when we’re thousands of miles from home. We must enjoy the gravet laks while we can because only in Norway will it be truly fresh. When we compare the freshness and texture of this uncooked gravet laks to Japanese sushi, Henning is appalled. “No, no, no! That’s just raw fish. You could get sick!” he explains with a grimace.

(aka Cured Salmon)
(aka gravlax in Swedish)

* 1 1/2 to 2 pounds of salmon. Two symmetrical pieces (preferably frozen already to kill microorganisms) cleaned, boned, scaled, preferably with the skin on. Center cut (toward the head) is best because it’s thickest and juiciest.
* 1 bunch of dill
* 1/8 cup of kosher salt, or coarse salt (regular salt can be substituted)
* 1/8 cup of sugar
* Shot of brandy or aquavit (optional, but an extra shot is always welcome for the cook)
* 2 tbsp. white, black, and/or pink peppercorns (optional, I think it detracts and masks the subtle fish flavor)

Directions: Rinse the fish in cold water and dry with paper towels. Place skin side down on large piece of saran wrap or aluminum foil. Put dill sprigs on top and sprinkle the salt, sugar and optional peppercorns evenly. Pour brandy over fish. Put other piece of fish on top, flesh side down, skin side up. Wrap up very tightly in plenty of foil or plastic wrap. Put heavy weight (e.g. 4 cans, five pound weight, an iron) on top of fish and refrigerate at least two days, but preferably three or four. Turn the fish every 12 hours or so and resituate the weights on top. When gravet laks is finished, scrape off excess salt, sugar, pepper and dill and dry with paper towels. Slice the fish very thin.

Serving suggestions: Plain with mustard dill sauce (mix chopped fresh dill with even parts of mustard and mayonnaise and a bit of lemon juice. I like some honey in it too, but Scandinavians would scoff at this). Goes well with boiled potatoes, especially new potatoes.
Another favorite is on top of scrambled eggs and thinly sliced bread for a kind of smørbrød (open-faced sandwich). Smoked salmon is also delicious this way. Pils beer and a shot of aquavit are mandatory to wash down this treat.

This piece is adapted from In Cod We Trust: Living the Norwegian Dream by Eric Dregni.

Eric Dregni is associate professor of English and journalism at Concordia University in St. Paul. He is the author of more than a dozen books including By the Waters of Minnetonka, Never Trust a Thin Cook, Vikings in the Attic, Midwest Marvels, and the forthcoming Let’s Go Fishing!, all published by University of Minnesota Press.

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