Lutefisk: Fishy Lye

I have ancestral roots in the land of pickled herring and potatis korv, both of which I have tasted and enjoy. I like sardines, kippers, anchovies, and caviar, too. But my Norwegian cousins have some seriously fishy fish dishes and I have to violate my rule: “You can’t say ‘Ewww, yuck, gross!’ till you’ve tasted it,” when it comes to lutefisk. Or to at least amend the rule, somewhat, to say, “Nope – don’t think I’m ready to try that one, just yet.”

What on earth possessed Norwegians to invent lutefisk? According to Linda Stradley on What’s Cooking America:

The history of lutefisk dates back to the Vikings. On one occasion, according to one legend, plundering Vikings burned down a fishing village, including the wooden racks with drying cod. the returning villagers poured water on the racks to put out the fire. Ashes covered the dried fish, and then it rained. the fish buried in the ashes in the ashes thus became soaked in a lye slush. Later the villagers were surprised to see that the dried fish had changed to what looked like fresh fish. They rinsed the fish in water to remove the lye and make it edible, and then boiled it. The story is that one particularly brave villager tasted the fish and declared it “not bad.”

Reminds me of “Found a Peanut”:

Or “On Top of Spaghetti”:

“Sixty minute rule!” Oh, the things we do out of hunger and desperation. My theory? A bored Viking housewife, one day, was mixing up soap. She scooped some cod into the vat. Her eyes were already watering, from the lye, and it didn’t do much to improve or worsen the smell, so she didn’t notice until it was too late. Her husband came home, hungry from pillaging, only to realize there was nothing in the cupboard but waxy lumps of vile-smelling fish. He was so hungry he shrugged, and being the strong Viking that he was, ate it. To exact revenge, he insisted that it was the best thing he’d ever eaten and shared it with his wife, who could hardly admit that eating lye – which had left her poor hands raw and red, already –  probably wasn’t the best idea anyone ever had. He shared it with his neighbors, who gagged it down with a smile, not wanting to admit that they had weaker constitutions than their Viking brother. It eventually became a test of manhood, with the women all working to outdo each other and make the most mouth-and-eye-watering whitefish possible. Legend has it that the winners of this contest are all floating around for eternity on a ghostly Viking ship, where late at night, you can hear groaning and wailing from the bowels of the ship.

Did I mention that lutefisk is fish, soaked in lye, then rinsed – that has the consistency of Jell-O? To be fair, without lye we wouldn’t have soap. Apparently, we’d also be pretzel-less and bagel deprived. Did I mention that Drano is mostly lye, or that lye could be used to dispose of a body in about three hours? It’s not just fish that turns gelatinous in lye.

Norwegian-Americans believe that lutefisk was brought by their ancestors on the ships when they came to America, and that it was all they had to eat. Today the fish is celebrated in ethnic and religious celebrations and is linked with hardship and courage.

That I can believe.

Your Turn

What funky foods have you tried – and did you like them??


Holly Jahangiri is the author of Trockle; A Puppy, Not a Guppy; Innocents & Demons; and A New Leaf for Lyle. You can find her books on Amazon at For more information on her children's books, please visit
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8 thoughts on “Lutefisk: Fishy Lye”

  1. Never trust a Swede or a Ukrainian. Mikael, my adopted Swedish Brother, and Noella, who was raised by Ukrainians as an orphan…

    They…. Wanted me to try pickled herring. Now, I did not know anything about it, other than it was fish. Not that it was RAW fish, HEAVILY salted, and pickled in STRONG vinegar.

    So I tried some. It was not bad, and I ate 4 large pieces with Noella, who let me pig out. (She is that evil!) That night, the salt and vinegar came to haunt me. I had no sleep, and drank roughly 1000 gallons of water. I hope you are laughing along with them!

    Noella thought it was funny. When I emailed Mikael, he replied that he laughed for an hour. I was going to warn you, he said, but I guess I do not have to now.

    He then urged me to try FERMENTED herring. Fortunately he sent me a link to Google it, first.

    I have not tried the fermented stuff.

    There you go. A story for Holly.

    An evil man is tortured, by being forced fed fish!


  2. Hahaha, I like your theory about the bored Viking housewife, Holly! I am a vegetarian, but found your post interesting to read! Always fun to know the story behind food! Happy weekend to you!

    1. Hi, Vidya! Welcome back. And thanks – I once ran a writing contest where the prompt was to explain “What possessed the first person ever to try – describe their thought processes, then describe the scene wherein they convince the SECOND person to try it.”

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