Munching on intestines, eyeballs or any other interior bits? Even the thought can make many squeamish. But every winter when I visit the beautiful Lofoten Islands in Arctic Norway, I return to savor an odd-sounding dish that, for roughly four months of the year, is the tastiest thing on local menus: the tongues of an iconic North Atlantic fish.
Cod tongues — little fleshy pillows that burst with fine fishy flavor, served up sizzling-hot — are a local delicacy in these parts. And what’s also surprising is the tradition for procuring the tongues. For as long as anyone in northern Norway can remember, children between the ages of around 6 to 16 have been in charge of the tongue cutting. So when the skrei — a migratory cod species from the Barents Sea — arrive like liquid gold to spawn, it’s not only fishermen who are cashing in. As the wooden racks around the islands fill up with drying stockfish, so too do the piggy banks of Lofoten’s schoolkids, who rack up some rather serious spending cash at their after-school jobs.
“I’m saving my money for a car and college, and maybe a laptop, too,” Ihne Lysvold tells me as she deftly impales a cod head on a sharp pick and loosens its tongue and part of its throat in one smooth motion. The teen is bent over a large plastic bin filled with hundreds of fish heads outside a fish factory in Henningsvær, a fishing village and popular tourist town. The factories donate the heads to the local kids to keep the tradition alive (the de-tongued heads are later dried and exported to Africa for food).
As the tongues quickly stack up on Ihne’s pick, so too do her kroners. “I can do 10 to 20 kilograms an hour,” says the 15-year-old, who started cutting tongues when she was 9. She sells them directly to customers for the going rate (around $7 a kilogram) and last year earned more than $3,500 in the short slot of time between the end of school and handball practice. When her father was young, it was mostly boys doing the work, Ihne says, “but now it’s mostly the girls in my class doing it. The boys just want to play video games.”
My favorite place to tuck into tongues is at my friend Hanna’s big red house in Henningsvær. She fries them up in duck fat, with just a pixie dusting of flour. But if you can’t score an invitation to a local home, then head to Fiskekrogen, an iconic Lofoten restaurant fronting Henningsvær’s ridiculously picturesque harbor. It’s had tongues on the menu since opening in 1989.
“Foreign visitors are sometimes a bit skeptical” to try the tongues, says owner Else Maria Larsen, but after learning about the tradition and that local kids cut them, “they usually give it a go.” The restaurant purchases the tongues directly from two local girls, placing a year’s worth of orders in January (they’re on the menu year-round, but winter is the best time to eat them). The chefs marinate them in soy sauce, and then pan-fry them in sunflower oil and butter.
“It’s a tradition worth preserving,” says Larsen. And a tasty one.
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