Rakfisk is a Norwegian dish of fermented trout. Words cannot describe how bad it stinks. Evolution, which has given us a sense of smell and an instinctual ability to distinguish what food is good to eat from that which is putrid, has led up to the moment that one is confronted with rakfisk. It's a poignant moment, when, despite all common sense, you put the reeking fish in your mouth and chew. Seconds pass, and - as if by some magic - the smell vanishes. Instead of botulism, an otherworldly taste emerges. An aftertaste lingers. And you go in for more.
This post is about the Norwegian culture phenom that is rakfisk and about how to prepare it for a festive Christmas season.
Buying and preparing rakfisk
Traditionally, rakfisk is most often consumed at Christmas, when it seems Norwegian suspend all common sense when it comes to mealtimes. I recently entered by favourite fish market, Ravnkloa, located in downtown Trondheim, and saw that the first shipment of rakfisk was in for the early adopters. I asked if I could get some, in addition a lovely piece of fresh flounder that was on display. “Umm… okay," said the fishmonger, “have you had this before?” “Ja, den har jeg spist før,” I said, in my best Norwegian. He typed in the total and stuck the price tag onto the bag. “Do you have the other ingredients?” He was testing me. “You mean onion, sour cream, and flatbread?” I asked. “Not yet - but I'll get them on my way home from here.” He smiled at me and nodded. Crazy fucker, he probably thought. Why would any non-Norwegian buy rakfisk?
This is how rakfisk is prepared: you bring the vacuum-sealed bag home, then, nervously, you cut it open. The smell stings your nostrils and you feel queasy and lose all appetite. Dizzy now, you thinly slice a red onion. Now to add insult to injury your eyes are watering, too. You place a few dobs of rich sour cream on a plate along with plenty of flatbread and lefse (a type of soft flatbread). You make sure it's nicely arranged, because hell - if may as well look nice. Finally, you fetch the aquavit from the liquor cabinet. Then, against your will, you assemble a little bite-sized portion from the assembled ingredients and pour yourself a small glass of the hard liquor.
My curiousity has led me to look up several rakfisk recipes, but it has stopped at actually preparing it. I consider myself adventurous when it comes to food preparation, but when it comes to fermenting fish I have to draw a line. First of all, the stink alone would probably get me evicted from my apartment. Secondly, there is a small risk of dying from eating fermented fish, if you’re not careful.
Let me explain. The difference between fermenting vegetables and grains - like in a sauerkraut or sourdough bread - and between fermenting the flesh of an animal, be it fish or meat, is that the latter contains virtually no carbohydrates. Carbohydrate is the fodder for the microbes that drive the lactic acid and alcohol production that kills any potentially dangerous microorganisms. In a low-acid fish ferment, therefore, the risk of harmful microorganisms is higher, and is further compounded by the lack of oxygen in the fermentation vessel (usually a plastic bucket). Clostridium botulinum is the most notorious microorganism of them all. It is commonly found in soil, but given just the right conditions, it will create the single most toxic neurotoxin known to humans: the botulism neurotoxin. Just one-millionth of a gram per kilogram of body weight is fatal at oral doses. The risk is usually managed with heat treatment or in a high-acid environment found in typical vegetable ferments. However, because rakfisk preparation is a low-acid ferment without heat treatment and is matured anaerobically in a plastic container, it means the risk should be taken quite seriously.
Still, it’s easy to look at the dangers of fermenting fish from our modern lens of refrigeration and preservation and best-before dates. Historically, people throughout the Northern climes of the world have relied upon fermenting fish as a way to save seasonally abundant food for times when it was scarce. In other words, fish fermentation was a tool for survival, not for chic or adventurous food preparation.
Magnus Nilsson, de facto curator of Nordic cuisine and owner of the legendary (and soon historical) restaurant Fäviken in Sweden, has offered the following basic recipe based upon 10 kg of fresh trout or char:
For a strong smell (one that “meets you at the door,” as Magnus writes), leave the gills on and leave the blood that accumulates by the spine. These contain “plenty of bacteria and nutrition for them to live on.” If you prefer a milder, yet still assertive, flavour, remove these parts and rinse the fish well.
Put a handful of salt and sugar in the cavity of each fish. Place the fish on their sides in a very clean bucket and layer them inside. Place a lid that fits inside the bucket such that rests directly on the fish and then weigh it down with something heavy and very clean. Leave at 6-8 C for a couple of days.
After 3 days, a brine should have accumulated to cover the fish. If not, make and chill a brine with 5% salt and top up the bucket until the fish are completely covered. Place in the refrigerator at a temperature no higher than 3.3 C to minimize the risk from Clostridium botulinum. Check and control the pH so that it drops from about 7 to 6 or below. If the pH has not dropped noticeably after 1 week, you must discard the fish and start over.
Leave the fish to mature for a minimum of 6 months.
Nisslon asserts in his recipe that, “when producing fermented trout it is very important to avoid soil contamination because of the risk of Clostridium botulinum bacteria growing during the largely anaerobic fermentation process. Apart from that, it is quite a straightforward process that works in much the same way as any other lacto-fermentation process.” Notwithstanding, he adds, “It’s a good idea to send a sample to a professional before eating it, so you know it’s safe.”
Aquavit with rakfisk
Rakfik is enjoyed on either soft flatbread (lefse) or thin cracker (flatbrød) with sour cream and red onions, and often with potatoes on the side. A strong alcoholic drink goes well with this meal. Try a good citrusy pale ale or glass of aquavit. Forget trying to pair a wine. The taste is just too strong and the fish and sour cream too fatty and rich in umami to have any hope of holding up to a comparatively subtle glass of wine.
Personally, I enjoy aquavit with rakfisk. I recently had a long conversation with a helpful lady at the Vinmonopolet - the country’s monopolized liquor company - about which aquavit I should get for rakfisk. Her recommendation was Juleakevitt (Christmas aquavit). Its taste is less bold than that of the popular summer aquavit, she said, but it's still full-bodied enough to hold up against the festive, rich foods of the Christmas season - rakfisk being just one of them.
I'm Erik, the Burnt Chef. I'm a Finnish-born Newfoundlander living in Norway. I have a passion for cooking and a deep fascination for the culinary history of the North. Simplicity guides my cooking. Time, place, and history guide my storytelling. This is my personal blog about food.