Sunday, December 11, 2011


Rakfisk (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

While I was looking on the Internet for historical information about gingerbread, I ran across an odd Norwegian dish I'd never heard of before: Rakfisk. 

According to Wikipedia and other sources I found, rakfisk is a form of pickled preserved fish, usually made from trout or char. The word element "rak" means "soaked" and soaking is key to preparing it. First, raw fish is soaked in vinegar for about a half an hour. Then each fish is stuffed with sea salt and the stuffed fish are packed in layers, preferably under pressure, with a tiny pinch of sugar added to each. Then the container of packed fish is put in a cold place. If the process works correctly, the vinegared, salt-stuffed fish generate their own brine, which preserves them; additional brine may be added to help the process along. Understandably, recipes for rakfisk caution against allowing the fish to touch soil at any point in the preparation, lest the batch be tainted by botulism. How the technique works is imperfectly understood and a study of it is being planned.
The first written source to mention rakfisk dates to 1348 C.E., but since medieval cookbooks generally include recipes that are much older, it is likely that rakfisk is older as well, though I'm not ready to assert that Norse Vikings made and ate the stuff.

The picture above gives an idea both of how the finished product may look and how it is eaten (sour cream and red onion are two traditional accompaniments.) Intriguingly, it is associated with Christmas, which may be why I stumbled across it while chasing gingerbread links. That association may simply have resulted from the fact that preserved fish is likely to be eaten in the dead of winter, when fresh foods are unvailable and fishing is likely to be precluded by foul weather.  Since I have the choice, I'd rather eat turkey, with gingerbread for dessert.


  1. I came across this while researching Viking-possible preserved foods, and decided that I just couldn't try making rakfisk in a way I thought would be safe.

  2. Hi, Patrick! Thanks for stopping by.

    I agree with you; this isn't a dish I'd want to try making myself. However, Norwegians have been making rakfisk at home for generations and haven't killed themselves off yet!

    I suspect that the salt and the chill do most of the work of preserving the fish, but I'm no biologist or home economist. Hopefully, the planned study will clarify what's really going on.

  3. Hi,

    Sounds vaguely like ceviche (the Spanish / South American way of 'cooking' fish with lemon juice, vinegar, or other acids.)

  4. Hi, John. Thanks for stopping by.

    It may taste like ceviche, and its cooking-free like ceviche, but the preparation is focused on preservation, not taste per se.