Monday, January 28, 2008

Jul in Norway

Christmas in Norway is all about family and traditions. You know that holiday is in the air when people from work feast on sumptuous jul (Christmas) dishes (and get drunk) in late November or early December, to celebrate the julebord (literally, Christmas table) tradition. 

Typically, families decorate Christmas trees on the 23rd, the day before Christmas. On Christmas day - December 24 - they savor traditional Christmas food, such as pinnekjøtt, cod, lutefisk, and ribbe, depending on the family's palate and liking, and according to which region you belong to in Norway. 

I am particularly fond of pinnekjøtt, which is salted, dried lamb ribs steamed with birch twigs for hours, and served with boiled potatoes and rutabaga (root vegetable). This dish goes very well with aquavit. 

Steamed/boiled torsk (cod) is another special jul dish, which is an exquisitely luxurious dish. It is healthy, fresh, and high quality, and perfect for the holiday season when we tend to over-eat. 

Ribbe or pork rib roast is an ultimate Christmas food for feasting. It is sinfully tasty and rich with spices and wonderful aroma. Coming from a country where lechon (roasted whole pig) is a national dish, ribbe is naturally one of my favorite jul dishes! How I love those crunchy cracklings!! 

Meanwhile, lutefisk (lye fish) is also on the holiday menu and arguably a national delicacy which elicits extreme culinary responses, from disgusting to dangerous to delicious. Lutefisk is supposedly a cod or haddock or pollock fish that undergo a long, complicated process of drying, soaking in cold water, and treating with lye solution, before boiling it with salt water. The end product, if cooked properly, is a translucent, gelatinous fish. It is rated one of the 10 worst food on earth. For many Norwegians, it is an acquired taste. For me, it tastes just like a boiled bland fish, with a slight peculiar taste to it. It's definitely far from lethal. And besides, I eat it with red wine vinegar, thereby adding color and taste to this age-old traditional dish. (It is also a lame demonstration of my need to fuse two cultures together).

Another interesting yuletide culinary tradition is serving a porridge (with butter, sugar, and cinnamon) on Christmas day, before or after Christmas dinner, with an almond hidden inside someone's bowl. The one who has the almond gets the marzipan pig. Don't ask me why a marzipan pig...

And I must not forget that after a hearty Christmas meal and a cloudberry cream for dessert, and before opening the gifts, family members gather around the juletre (Christmas tree) and sing some Christmas carols.

Christmas is also the time for partying, particularly for students who go back to their hometown during the holidays. Usually arranged on the 2nd or 3rd day of Christmas, young people go out at night to drink and party until the wee hours of the morning. 

All these jul festivities wind down around the 13th/14th day of Christmas or immediately after New Year's day (it varies across regions) when children dressed up in costumes and sing carols from one house to another, in return for some candies and goodies. This tradition is called julebukk or nyttårsbukk. This is of course a perfect time for adults to put their extra goodies into good use and get rid of unnecessary calories:-).

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