Gravlax is a Scandinavian fish dish which is popular in Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Iceland in particular. The recipe has greatly evolved over the centuries, from a pungent fermented fish to a more mildly flavored cured version. The food is commonly served as an appetizer, and it may also appear on sandwiches as a snack. Stores which specialize in Scandinavian food may carry gravlax, and it can also be made at home.
Traditionally, gravlax is made with salmon. Other species of fish could potentially be used, but since gravlax is eaten raw, only saltwater species can be used. Freshwater fish may carry parasites which are potentially dangerous. Purists would argue that a version of the dish made with a fish other than salmon is not truly gravlax, although it may be perfectly edible and interesting to eat.
I n Swedish, grav means “buried,” while lax means “salmon.” The original version of the dish was made by fishermen who buried salmon above the high tide line after rubbing it in salt, sugar, and dill. While it was buried, the salmon fermented, and it became quite pungent and strongly flavored. The modern dish is not fermented at all, and is cold-cured under refrigeration. This dramatically changes the flavor and odor of the dish, and many consumers prefer the modern version.
To make gravlax, equal parts of salt and sugar and blended and then rubbed into a salmon fillet. Sprigs of dill are lightly crushed and piled on top before the salmon is tightly wrapped and placed under refrigeration for up to five days. Some cooks weight the salmon, producing a pressed salmon gravlax with a very dense, compact texture. Others feel that this is unnecessary. In either case, the fillet must be as fresh as possible, and it should be washed and patted dry before the curing process is initiated.
Once the gravlax is cured, it is very thinly sliced and served. The raw salmon should be kept on ice, if possible, to ensure that it stays free of bacteria. It may be laid on on a smörgåsbord, arranged on crackers, or integrated into other appetizers. Gravlax tends to pair well with pickled vegetables such as onions, along with the strong liqueurs which are popular in Scandinavia. Some cooks like to modify the basic gravlax recipe with the addition of fresh herbs, liqueurs, or other ingredients, although this does tend to obscure the pure flavor of the salmon and dill.