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Swedish Christmas Food – Lutfisk Posted by on Dec 24, 2015 in Culture, food, Holidays

Swedes celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve—December 24. But that doesn’t mean they don’t take full advantage of the holiday. Come the end of November, you’ll start seeing restaurants, hotels, catering services all offering a julbord. Literally, Christmas table, a julbord is the Christmastime smorgasbord (another Swedish word, by the way) filled with food and drink.

There are plenty of variations of this tradition, and it is constantly changing like any tradition, but you’ll often find inlagd sill (pickled herring), julskinka (Christmas ham), korv (sausages), köttbullar (meatballs), potatis (potatoes), rökt och gravad lax (smoked and cured salmon), ärter (peas), rödbetor (red beets), rödkål (red cabbage) and a whole lot more. Plus there’s the julmust (Christmas pop, julöl (Christmas beer), and snaps (aquavit).

But there’s one thing I left off that list. Mostly because it’s one thing I leave off my own personal Christmas menu: lutfisk.

ForkLutefisk” by JonathunderOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Lutfisk, often known by the Norwegian word “lutefisk” in the United States, is fish soaked in lye. Which makes sense considering lut = lye and fisk = fish. Ta da! Swedish is a pretty logical language sometimes.

The dish has been around for at least 500 years with Olaus Magnus writing about it back in the 1500s. The recipe hasn’t changed much. Dry some whitefish (like ling, for example). Soak it in cold water for five-ish days. Soak it in lye for two-ish days. Soak it in cold water again for about 5-ish days. Don’t forget to change the water out once a day. Cook it. Eat it. Or don’t.

Traditions vary, but often lutfisk is served with potatoes and (where my dad’s family lives) senapsås (mustard sauce). In Norway they’ll serve it with bacon. In Finland, they’ll add some peas to the meal. But no matter how you eat it, or what you eat it with, lutfisk can be found on tables all over Sweden and its neighboring countries during the holiday season. And all over the United States as well.

Dr. Carrie Roy has put together a 13-minute documentary about lutfisk traditions in the Upper Midwest for anyone wanting to get a closer look at the glory that is Scandinavian food traditions.

Personally, I prefer not eating jellied fish that has been lying in poison for two days, but that’s just me. Do you include lutfisk in your holiday meals? Let us know in the comments below.

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About the Author: Marcus Cederström

Marcus Cederström has been writing for the Transparent Swedish Blog since 2009. He has a Bachelor's Degree in Scandinavian Studies from the University of Oregon, a Master's Degree in Scandinavian Studies from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and a PhD in Scandinavian Studies and Folklore from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He has taught Swedish for several years and still spells things wrong. So, if you see something, say something.


  1. AnnaPanna:

    I’ve given lutefisk a try like twice in my life, but no, I just don’t get the thrill of eating it. And I am no picky eater. Where I come from the tradition is to eat it with “valkokastike”, which is white sauce made from flour, butter and milk.

  2. Ervin Kallstrrom:

    Before the advent of refrigeration, cod fish was harvested through the summer and autumn. and was a very good source of protein, if a way to preserve the fish for use in the wintertime was found. It was learned that Lye which was found in wood ashes would keep the fish from spoiling. The soaking in several changes of fresh water over several days would absorb the lye content from the fish making it palatable. It was customary to garnish with preferred spices. Mother always made a delicious cream sauce to cover the fish. When the fish is properly prepared, (well soaked in several changes of fresh water) it was appreciated. In a society where food was scarce, the nourishing source of fish protein was a traditional life saver! thus it is easy to understand the reverence for this traditional treat. The cod fish which were plentiful, were simply covered with the wood ashes and the lye content was absorbed by the fish! so simple that anybody could do it!

  3. Lynn Signorile:

    I am a Swedish American living in New York City. Growing up my family always had Lutefisk on Christmas Eve. It was not very appetizing. As I grew older, I started tasting it afater I smothered it in cream sauce. Couldn’t eat it. Tasted like a weird gel in the mouth. That is the one thing that is not included in my family’s Swedish Christmas Eve dinner. No one misses it.

  4. Kendra:

    As an American married to a Swede who’s now celebrated Christmas in Sweden eight times, I must admit that lutfisk is an acquired taste… but it can be acquired! You just have to to disconnect the fish from the bone before serving, so you get a little white gelatinous pile on your plate without any rubbery bone, smother it in mustard sauce and make sure to serve yourself plenty of peas on the side.

  5. Marcus Cederström:

    Great comments everyone! Fun to hear how the tradition is being changed in some places and passed on in others.

  6. Dan Littman:

    Lutefisk: YUCK! When I was a kid I had a friend who’s great-grandparents were all immigrants (to the US) from Sweden and Norway. Every December his parents would start to joke about having lutefisk for Christmas, and the kids were all, “Oh no, here we go again!” That stuff was disgusting. Nobody ever ate it, we just pushed it around on the plate, so I don’t know why they even bothered to prepare it. My mom’s friend was a great cook, and there must have been plenty of other dishes that could have done for Scandinavian soul food. My friend is married to an Argentine now, and I believe he has never subjected her and their kids to lutefisk.

  7. SmartyPants:

    The only people I’ve met who liked it are from the great generation that went through the wars. I love them dearly, but truly, they can eat anything!

  8. Marcus Cederström:

    It does seem to be a tradition that older folks are more likely to maintain, but I know there are plenty of folks in Scandinavian America that keep eating it, no matter what their age.