The unmistakable aroma of preserved fish

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Lutefisk and pickled herring have distinctive aromas, but many identify lutefisk as the most odiferous.

In the photo above by MPR’s Jennifer Simonson at Olsen Fish Company on Wednesday, November 28th of this year president Chris Dorff holds a piece of dried lingcod from Norway that will be made into lutefisk, a traditional Nordic fish dish.

According to Olsen’s website, much of its lutefisk comes from the beautiful Norwegian town of Alesund, north of Bergen on the coast of the Norwegian Sea.

The story of lutefisk, according to Olsen’s, is a matter of perfect timing. For centuries, Norwegian fisherman have taken advantage of the cod spawning season from January to April. It comes just at the time of year when the climate is perfect for drying the fish.

The result – dried cod filets that are the beginnings of lutefisk.

One reason for lutefisk’s distinctive smell is because the chemical used for preserving the fish is caustic soda. The net aromatic result reminds some people of spoiled rather than preserved fish.

This all comes to mind because of a recent visit to Olsen Fish Company in north Minneapolis. You can hear a Minnesota Sounds and Voices report this afternoon during All Things Considered which captures some of the sound but, sadly, none of the smell.

Workers at the 100-year-old north Minneapolis company are busy this time of year fulfilling holiday lutefisk and pickled herring orders.

Chris Dorff says lutefisk sales are flat while orders for the more popular pickled herring are rising.

Why? Well, lutefisk is an acquired taste, one that’s popular among old timers who remember their Norwegian immigrant forebearers serving it for Christmas.

Getting used to lutefisk, again from personal experience, is not unlike trying to develop a taste for Korea’s national dish, kimchi, the tangy fermented cabbage with an aroma that can also clear a room.

Moral of the story?

Every culture has peculiar foods prepared in unusual ways that may never be universally enjoyed except by the people who regard them as part of their heritage.

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