Do Russians Eat Fish?

At some point in development of the young Soviet republic, it became obvious that the country can no longer satisfy population’s demand for meat. Bad harvest led to decrease of livestock population, food distribution was uneven among the cities and the regions. Soviet government understood the importance of protein in people’s diet and decided to introduce fish as a good source of protein.

To make fish popular, the so called “Fish Day” was invented. From the 12th of September 1932 all canteens in the country served only fish on Thursdays. Why Thursday? Not sure whether these are rumors or truth – but they could not choose Monday, because it is a start of a week and people needed meat to be productive. And they could not choose weekends since attendance of canteens on weekends is low. Wednesday and Friday are days when you are not supposed to eat meat, according to Russian Orthodox Church (and Soviet government did not want to support any religious habits). Between Tuesday and Thursday – they might have just flipped a coin.

In general, promoting consumption of fish is a good thing. Eating fish at least once a week is a healthy habit; fish is a great source of omega fatty acids, protein and many useful minerals and vitamins. However, as always, the devil is in execution. Fish burgers and fish soup, served in Soviet canteens, were horrible therefore people hated fish. In stores fish was usually available, but it was frozen and did not look as attractive as the fish we see in supermarkets now. And only cheap types of fish, such as hake, were available.

I was very surprised one day when I attended an expensive seafood restaurant in Minneapolis to celebrate a birthday of my close friend. That was a place that had a saying “Good fish cannot be cheap, cheap fish cannot be good” written in chalk on a black board. I ordered pollock and wondered what kind of fish I am about to consume. I was stunned when I found a translation. Fancy pollock happened to be an ordinary “mintai”, fish that we always considered good only for a cat. It was delicious though and I still do not understand why we never got fond of it in Russia in the Soviet times.

Fish awaits 2In the 70s promotion of fish also resulted in development of seafood chain stores, named Ocean. Some types of fish became more or less popular, such as live carp, which was fished out from a large aquarium and you were supposed to put it in a bathtub at home before you cook it.  But fish still never made it to the hearts of city consumers. Even now, from time to time, you can see social ads and billboards with the slogan – “Fish awaits you” and great mouth-watering photos, but although fish restaurants became quite popular since that time – most people will still prefer meat to fish any time. Fish awaits 3Except for the fish that you caught yourself of course – that is another story and a sport. Freshly caught fish is usually cooked on spot and consumed as fish soup “Uha“.

When talking about fish, it is also absolutely necessary to mention fish preserves. For some reasons canned fish had much better fate than raw frozen fish. Number one fish preserves were smoked sprats. Flat oblong tins with these tiny fishes were welcome at any festive meal. They were hard to get, they were distributed to VIP people first. They were really tasty. Now you can buy them in any supermarket – but they are of a different quality. Manufacturers use chemicals to achieve taste and texture of smoked fish instead of dealing with the proper process of smoking the fish, using aspen sawdust.

how russians eat pickled fish

Herring under a fur coat

Russians also love herring. Now we mostly buy canned herring, already cut into pieces and floating in some sauce. But in Soviet times herring it was usually the entire herring, which you put on a newspaper, trim the inside parts and cut. Herring can be consumed with rye bread and fresh onion rings or as a part of a salad. This salad, called “herring under the fur coat” often appears in lists of Russian curiosities, but it is in fact quite tasty. It consists of layers of diced potatoes, beets, carrots, eggs and onions and is saturated with mayo.

Another beloved and hard to find delicacy was cod liver. Chunks of cod liver had a consistency of a pâté, people ate them as a part of a salad or spread them on bread.

Less difficult to find, but very popular canned fish was salmon in brine. It served as a base for two very popular salads – Mimosa (layers of fish, boiled carrots, boiled potatoes or rice, grated cheese and diced eggs, saturated with mayo) and Fish salad – mix of canned salmon, boiled rice, diced boiled eggs and minced onion + mayo.

Fish awaits_1

Finally – at that time people consumed more vodka and a great snack to go with vodka were sprats in tomato sauce. There were also canned sayra, sardines and other canned fish, but they were much less popular.



Now fish in Moscow supermarkets is quite varied but after my trip to Japan, I am suspicious of any fish when I am not near the sea. In one of Russian movies there was a great quote – “sturgeon cannot be of the second grade of freshness, fish of the second grade is spoiled”. When you are so far from the sea – you are always in doubt whether the fish is fresh. Same about restaurants, which serve sushi and sashimi. My fish diet here mostly includes salted or smoked salmon, which is still considered to be a delicacy but is quite affordable.

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  • Anonymous - 5 years ago

    Thank-you for this . I saw Russian spratts in Ladner B.C. wondering if I should try them. Your article has let me know I can’t try them as I get severe migraine from smoked fish even smoked the old way?