The Minnesota State Fair has never selected a lutefisk dish as one of its official new foods. Until now.
Now it’s the dish on everyone’s radar as we approach the Aug. 24 kickoff to the Great Minnesota Get Together: Crispy Lutefisk Steam Buns at Shanghai Henri’s food stand.
Shanghai Henri’s has been a part of the fair’s International Bazaar since 1988. “My dad’s been working at the fair for 50 years,” said Molly Hanten. “My sisters and I have been working since the day we could ‘help’ pour pop.”
The Hanten family connected with the Devil’s Advocate restaurant group, led by Erik Forsberg, three years ago to talk about some fresh food ideas for their annual fair run.
That’s when lutefisk entered the picture. While the Norwegian delicacy may be a famously Minnesotan dish, it had yet to make the cut for an official new food. “From what we heard, it wasn’t for a lack of trying,” Forsberg said.
“Our motto has always been ‘Challenge the ordinary.’ Challenge what you think you know ... about burgers, about pizza and about lutefisk,” said Forsberg. “We’re playing Devil’s Advocate with lutefisk.”
For the uninitiated, lutefisk is a white fish that’s been dried, soaked in a lye solution and then rehydrated before being cooked and served with a prodigious amount of butter.
It’s a dish that Carissa Asleson, Devil’s Advocate operations manager and fullblooded Norwegian, loves to eat. Asleson’s family would travel to her grandmother’s in New Ulm during the holiday season, and lutefisk was on the menu. “But the question was, who wants to eat hot, buttery fish on a summer day?” she said.
In terms of texture, the dish is often described as jiggly, gelatinous or squidgy.
While some say that with an ill-disguised shudder, Asleson argues it’s more a matter of cultural difference. “In other cultures, especially Japan, that’s a prized texture that people seek out.”
Planning the State Fair dish started with the thought of sushi, and the popularization of poké bowls — to embrace the texture and not hide lutefisk’s nature. The exterior is brushed with sweet-salty hoisin sauce and broiled until there’s a crispy crust.
Tucked into white-bread soft buns, “It’s actually delicious,” Asleson assures skeptics. The result echoes the braised pork belly so often served inside steam buns.
To source the lutefisk, they didn’t have to look far.
Minnesota-based Olsen Fish Co. is the world’s largest lutefisk producer, even making enough to export back to Norway. For the fair, Shanghai Henri’s has ordered 2 tons of it.
Hanten said they’ve all been working on this idea for over nine months. “I wouldn’t have ever called myself a lutefisk fan, until now,” she said.
Joy Summers • 612-673-4112