Rakfisk is a traditional Norwegian fish dish composed of raw but fermented freshwater fish, typically trout. In most preparations, the fish is soaked in brine soon after catching, and fermented in barrels for several months to preserve freshness. It is customarily a winter dish, and is popular at Christmas celebrations in Norway and throughout Scandinavia. The fish is typically served on flat bread with sour cream, onions, hard-boiled egg, and potatoes as garnish.
Vikings and medieval Norwegians are believed to have pioneered the rakfisk preparations that persist to this day. Much of Norway’s land is seacoast, and fishing has long been a major industry there. Before refrigeration was commonplace, early inhabitants had to find ways of making fish and other meats last, particularly through the harsh arctic winters. Fermentation and curing was one of the ways that they preserved fish. Traditional preparations of rakfisk and other pickled, jellied, or fermented fish dishes, while no longer necessary, have become an important part of Norwegian cuisine and culture.
Originally, the main fish harvest was in the autumn. The fish was generally buried in casks of brine in the frozen ground to ferment. On this schedule, the rakfisk was ready for consumption by about Christmastime. Modern technology allows for preparation and fermentation year-round, but the dish remains most popular in winter preparations and celebrations. An annual rakfisk festival takes place in eastern Norway each November, which opens the unofficial rakfisk season.
Modern-day Norwegian cooks prepare rakfisk in much the same way as their medieval ancestors did, albeit with more modern equipment. Once caught, the fish is gutted, but left in its skin. The flesh is soaked in brine for a few days, then rinsed and moved to a pressurized brining chamber where it will remain for one to three months. During that time, the proteins in the fish will break down, the brine will turn alcoholic, and the naturally created alcohol will preserve the fish.
Rakfisk is one of many uncooked fish dishes popular in Scandinavian cuisine. Gravlax or gravlak is a similar fermented fish dish made of salmon, and torrfisk is a dried cod preparation. Other traditional Norwegian fish dishes like lutefisk have a brined, fermented taste similar to that of rakfisk, even though they are cooked.
Despite being traditional, the dish is not universally loved by Norwegians. Like all fermented foods, it can be something of an acquired taste. Many also find the smell to be unsettling, although there are also those who discover that they find it quite appealing. Regardless of individual tastes, many Norwegians at home and abroad partake of rakfisk at Christmas and at other family gatherings for tradition and heritage’s sake, if nothing else.