Having grown up in Norway, seafood is in my DNA. We never made our own cured fish, like pickled herring or gravlaks; there were fishmongers and fish specialty stores everywhere that sold prepared fish, often with a particular twist that made this store or that brand famous or preferred. My dad had his favorite shop for all things seafood right around the corner from our apartment in Oslo, where he knew the folks behind the counter by first name, and they in turn knew, for instance, that he preferred the tastier meat from the shell and not the claws of crabs. As a 4-year-old, I double-fisted herring in wine sauce, or sour herring as it was called, spitting out the whole cloves and peppercorns on autopilot. During summer vacations on our old wooden fishing-boat-turned-sailboat I’d wade into the water with my dad and pull up mussels by the handful, and I learned by watching him gut, clean, and portion the cod caught in the nets we put out overnight.
Whenever my parents had a party—and there were many parties, big parties—a buffet was often the go-to approach. Freshly caught shrimp from the Oslo Fjord overflowed in large bowls, unpeeled for the added hygge of the DIY peeling. Gravlaks was elegantly laid out on platters with plenty of dill and lemon wedges and the requisite mustard-dill sauce. My mom’s pièce de résistance was her famous “cabaret”—a gelatinous mold meticulously filled with shrimp, crabsticks, fish-pudding cubes, and mussels. Between the seafood layers, green peas, asparagus, and sliced hard-boiled eggs provided color, and all the ingredients were organized to look as decorative and purposeful as possible. A very treyf gelatin held all that seafood together, and the way it jiggled and smelled lingers vividly in my memory. This is not something I miss from my life before I became a Jewess.
But then in my early 20s, I moved to the United States—to suburbia in Connecticut at that. Gone from my life were the fish mongers and seafood specialty stores, and the family and friends who, like me, knew and appreciated all things seafood. What I gained was a kosher store, the Crown Market, and this was a greatly added value, since I was now a newly minted member of the tribe, committed to keeping kosher. Behind the deli counter, jovial Albert greeted me, with a heavy Polish accent and blue numbers tattooed on his arm. “Hello Nina from Norvay! Vat can I get you today?” he would say. I would glance into the display case, my eyes scanning the baked salmon salad, the smoked whitefish salad, and the tuna salad; I would skip over the varieties of lox, all too salty for my taste, and finally, there were the whole or half smoked whitefish, oily with their glistening brown skin and dried fins, next to herring in wine sauce, in cream sauce, and the über-salty Matjes fillets.
Since even kosher nature abhors a vacuum, I have discovered many ways over the years to compensate for the crustaceans that occupied a fond place in my heart and belly. One is that whenever I go back to visit friends and family in Norway, I make it a point to request a newfound favorite: rakfisk. The trout or char is caught in September and fermented for three months, ready to be enjoyed in December. The long fermentation involves salting and autolysis, an airtight process that causes the destruction of cells through the action of their own enzymes; in effect, the fish is rotting. The recipe dates from the Middle Ages, and is at once an acquired taste and a delicacy. As is often the case with strongly flavored food, it’s the trimmings that make it a perfect culinary experience. Rakfisk is served with soft potato tortillas called lefse, boiled potatoes, pickled red beets, red onions, butter, and sour cream. And of course, plenty of aquavit. Another compensation for being out of Norway is that I’ve had to learn to make many of the specialty fish dishes myself, like pickled herring and gravlaks, pan-seared mackerel, and salted cod.
But it was not my parents who taught me how to make gravlaks, because they could easily buy it in Oslo, already cured to perfection. I had made a new friend, Adrienne, at the University of Connecticut, whose mother, Irene, was a Norwegian Jew. Not only did we joke that Irene had become my de facto yidishe mame, but the friendship cemented around our shared heritage. Irene always dished up homemade gravlaks for the many festive occasions our families would share throughout the following 30 years, but she used to say her recipe was a secret—until one day, she decided to share it with me: The occasion was my oldest son Tobi’s bar mitzvah. In addition to making five varieties of herring (in tomato sauce; wine sauce; with beets, apples, and onions; in curry sauce; and in cream sauce), I cured enough gravlaks to feed more than 250 guests. It was slicing it with a dull shul kitchen knife that almost did me in.
In my ongoing search for kosher, fishy things, I have discovered canned, often smoked, cod liver, usually from Iceland, Denmark, or Norway. I never had it growing up, nor do I see it in stores or homes in Norway. I relish this salty delicacy as if it were the fanciest foie gras, which I guess it is, just not from force-fed fowl. Every Shabbat lunch, my partner, Tony, and I start with a few bites of cod liver or herring in wine sauce, followed by a shot or two of our locally Maine-made Cold River Gin.
But it’s the gravlaks that has become my staple go-to dish for special occasions because it basically makes itself, and the fact that it can be made in advance and served at room temperature makes it super convenient. When I entertain family and friends for Shabbat, holidays, or a midsummer dîner al fresco, I often make this Scandinavian staple the central attraction, serve it with a mixed green salad or roasted asparagus, and a potato dish of some sort, which works well to temper the salt of the fish and spice of the accompanying mustard-dill sauce.
More expensive wild salmon does not necessarily make better gravlaks, because it is so lean that the finished product tends to come out too dry. I prefer responsibly farmed Atlantic salmon, whether it’s from Norway, Maine, or Canada. This fattier version gives a moister result, once the curing is completed. Besides, these are the kind of fatty omega-3 calories you do want to have in your diet.
I must point out why I insist that gravlaks not be spelled gravlax or worse, gravlox. The Norwegian word “laks” is “lax” in Swedish, and both mean “salmon,” and it’s easy to see how “lax” has become “lox.” However, if you knew the hundreds of years of rivalry between everything culturally Norwegian and Swedish (the demeaning jokes are innumerable), you would also appreciate the subtlety of the spelling. Furthermore, I travel in circles where the word “lox” is so deeply ingrained by the iconic New York food culture of “bagels and lox” that I have spent the past 30 years of my life here in the U.S. insisting, “no, it’s not like lox.” So, as the Viking Jewess I am, I must insist: It’s gravlaks. The prefix “grav” means “to dig” or “a grave.” In the olden days before refrigeration, the fresh salmon was cured by being placed in a ditch or deep hole in the ground and covered by dirt. This would ensure a stable and cooler temperature and, together with the generous amounts of salt, acted as a way to preserve food.
Nina Lichtenstein is a writer, teacher, and storyteller who divides her time between Maine and Tel Aviv.