Gravlax – true Viking food

Gravlax (or gravalaks, in Norwegian)  is one of those rare Scandinavian foods  most Americans are familiar with.  Gravlax on a bagel with cream cheese and capers? A classic at diners across the country and a popular brunch choice.  Gravlax is a Nordic dish, based on raw salmon marinated in sugar, salt and dill, often served thinly sliced on top of bread, typically served with a dill-mustard sauce.   While a classic and delicious way to serve gravlax, chefs across the world are experimenting with multiple ways of presenting this dish. There’s even a shop in Stavanger, an idyllic town in the south of Norway, selling chocolate filled with gravlax… which should describe the strong love that exists for this food across the country!

Gravlax stems back to the middle Ages, and while Norwegians insist it’s from Norway, let’s just agree that it’s definitely Scandinavian. The word “grav” is Norwegian for “dig” or “grave”, indicating that the fish was dug under ground to be kept cool and preserved (fermented) in the old days when refrigeration was absent.  The cool temperature made sure the salmon was fermented, but did not rot. This was food for the brave – for the vikings.  The underground was mysterious, a lot of things could happen.  Apparently magical things evolved – while still a bit scary,  the salmon turned out nice and flavorful with a velvety, smooth texture.  The month of February was known as the hunger month in the Viking Age, as it was quite difficult to find enough food to eat. Salmon was of course a luxury, and hence was preserved to last as long as possible.


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Julia Child discovered gravlax during her brief stay as a diplomat’s wife in Oslo in the 1950s, and while not exactly enamored with Norwegian food after her long stay in France, featured gravlax as one of her favorite Nordic foods in several of her cookbooks. As a result, numerous varieties of the dish sprung up across the world and Julia can therefore be credited with aiding in the international success of gravlax.

Today, fermentation is no longer used, rather chefs use everything from cognac, Pernod, vodka and aquavit to “pickle” the salmon and preserve it, while others prefer a straight dry rub.  I tend to prefer aquavit, as it contains a tremendous array of savory herbs and adds exciting complimentary flavors to the salmon.  Pernod is also a good choice as it contains the licorice flavors of the juniper berries Scandinavians love to use in their coking.  You can use the “grav” preservation method on a variety of fatty fish, but salmon tends to be everyone’s favorite.  I like to use my salmon with the skin on, as it’s easier to carve or slice after it has been preserved.  Some people experiment with herbs such as coriander and fennel instead of dill, horseradish, beets and even wasabi – the latter perhaps a homage to the Japanese, who have always been fans of the familiar simple, mild and clean Scandinavian flavors.


Aquavit is a well known Scandinavian restaurant located in midtown Manhattan and had its heyday under Swedish celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson. I  have a special relationship to this restaurant, as I used to work there as a hostess while I earned my Professional Culinary Certificate from the Institute of Culinary Education, and I also happened to meet my husband there, who worked as a chef there at the same time.  I have fond memories of the people, the food and the atmosphere  – such a gorgeous restaurant, with outstanding food that took me right home. Sweden and Norway have very similar culinary backgrounds, and I must say, Aquavit did a fantastic job with salmon. Of course, as a Norwegian I feel that the Swedes always get the credit for this dish, but in fact both countries do a fabulous job with this ingredient. As thanks to Aquavit for having introduced me to the love of my life (I’m referring to my husband, not salmon, haha!)  I want to include the recipe for Aquavit’s fabulous gravlax below. Gravlax is incredibly versatile – you can roll them in tortillas with a bit of cream cheese or even blue cheese and honey, use them as a filling for pierogies, include them in your pasta dish, or add into a seafood salad with other seafood such as shrimp and crabmeat, with potatoes, eggs, herbs and lettuce.  I also enjoy gravlax in a crusty baguette sandwich with tomato slices,  pickles, mayonnaise, fresh lemon juice and red onion and a splash of tabasco.  This master recipe is great to keep on hand for when you want to experiment with different recipes!


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Please make sure to use the freshest salmon available (sushi quality is recommended). I always recommend wild salmon, which has a far superior texture than farm raised salmon.  Gravlax will keep in the fridge for about a week if you wrap it well, or you can also freeze it.


adapted from the cookbook “Aquavit”

For the gravlax

1 cup sugar

1/2 cup kosher salt

2 tbsp cracked white peppercorns

2 1/2-3 lbs skin-on salmon fillet (one piece), pin bones removed

2-3 large bunches fresh dill, coarsely chopped (including stems)

For the Mustard Sauce:

2 tbsp honey mustard

1 tsp Dijon mustard

2 tsp sugar

1 tbsp cold strong coffee

1 1/2 tbs white wine vinegar

pinch of freshly ground black pepper

pinch of salt

3/4 cup grapeseed oil or canola oil

1/2 cup chopped fresh dill

Prepare the gravlax:

Combine the sugar, salt and peppercorns in a small bowl and mix well. Place the salmon in a shallow dish and rub a handful of the salt mixture into both sides o the fish. Sprinkle the salmon with the remaining mixture and cover with the dill. Cover the dish and let stand for 6 hours in a cool spot.

Transfer the salmon to the fridge and let cure for 36 hours.

Up to 1 day ahead – prepare the mustard sauce:

Combine both mustards, the sugar, vinegar, coffee, salt and pepper in a blender. With the machine running, add the oil in a slow, steady stream, blending until the sauce is thick and creamy. Transfer to a bowl and stir in the dill. Cover and refrigerate for at least 4 hours, or overnight, to allow the flavors to marry.

Scrape the seasonings off the gravlax. Slice the gravlax on the bias into thin slices, and serve with the mustard sauce, thinly sliced bread or dilled, boiled potatoes and a cold shot of Linie Aquavit!


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6 thoughts on “Gravlax – true Viking food

    • Sunny says:

      Thanks so much, Stacey – I can attest that it’s a great recipe as I had the gravlax many ties while working at Aquavit and recreated it myself! If you can find wild Norwegian, Scottish or Alaskan salmon that would be great! Thanks again!:)

  1. aswedeinthekitchen says:

    Hej Sunny.
    Interesting to read your version of the gravlax. As a Swede, I always would, of course, say it is from Sweden. But you are right, it really is a dish from Scandinavia. Interesting about the fermentaion in the ground. Didn’t know that. Never heard of it at home.

    You know, we always sayin Sweden, that you have to freeze the salmon for a few days before you use it, only to kill off any bacterias or other unwanted little creatures in the salmon.
    Take care. perhaps I see you on Manhattan one day.

    • Sunny says:

      Hi Gisela! Nice to hear from you! And yes, of course we will claim dishes as being our own, just as Santa Claus is definitely from Norway (or was it Finland??) LOL!! I appreciate your comment and yes – would love to see you on Manhattan in the near future!! 🙂

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