If you happen to hail from southern Italy — or somewhere in the northeast U.S. — a fish-filled feast may be a harbinger of holiday joy. Though its origins can be traced back to the old country, the Feast of the Seven Fishes is a tradition that crystallizes and defines the Italian-American holiday ethos.
As Stacy Adimando notes in Saveur, "a complete lack of familiarity with the Seven Fishes tradition is actually not uncommon among Italian cooks." The Denver Public Library echoes this finding, stating that "for starters, the Feast of Seven Fishes is a term that has become more common in recent years, but isn't a codified tradition in Italy or even in Italian-American families. In researching this article, we found no formal definitions for the feast and almost no one agrees on which seven fishes should actually be included."
In spite of its undeniably Italian roots, the entire concept of "seven fishes" is a decidedly Italian-American concept.
Instead of bursting a bubble, hopefully, this knowledge expands your imagination of what the Feast of the Seven Fishes could look like if you celebrate it at home. Ideally, embracing this notion of a custom that isn't strictly defined frees you to make your own creative and culinary decisions in the kitchen. When it comes to this tradition, you shouldn't feel constrained by what it should look like to guests.
Historically, the earliest iterations of the Feast of the Seven Fishes (called "La Viglia" in Italy) are said to have originated in the 1800s, around the time in which southern, often poorer areas of Italy had a surplus of fresh fish but not much else by way of food. The notion of eating seafood is thought to hail from the Christian custom of abstaining from eating meat on certain holidays, which may have more or less necessitated the consumption of fish on Christmas Eve (and perhaps even Christmas Day, too).
Fast forward to today, and there's a real element of abbondanza when it comes to Christmas Eve, both for Italians and Italian-Americans.
Want more great food writing and recipes? Subscribe to Salon Food's newsletter, The Bite.
Whether you're looking to tap into the "abundant" embrace of this custom or simply hoping to differentiate your Christmas Eve spread, I implore you to create a feast of your own volition. If seven types of fish intimidate you, scale back and enjoy a smaller feast. During the pre-vaccine era of Christmas 2020, my family stayed home, and I whipped up a "Feast of the Five Fishes" for our little unit. (I did buy two more fish, but I got kind of tired halfway through. I realized that I didn't need to put on a whole song and dance because I was only serving my parents and brother and wound up cooking the other two fish on New Year's Day. Win-win!)
At least for me, there's something about making Italian-inspired dishes on Christmas Eve that just feels right. When those flavors are concentrated on fish-centric offerings (from appetizers and soups to entrées and even desserts), embracing this age-old custom may become a new Christmas highlight. Furthermore, while it's an Italian-American tradition, you don't have to adhere to a specific flavor profile. Feel free to switch things up by trying Mexican, Korean, Chinese or other fish dishes that honor your own traditions or expand your repertoire.
For some time, I thought the name of this celebration implied there was only room for "fish" like cod, snapper or trout. Once I realized that an invitation could also be extended to shellfish, my dinner menu grew tenfold. Clams, crab, lobster, mussels and oysters, along with lots and lots of scallops and shrimp, suddenly showed up at the party.
For some time, I thought the name of this celebration implied there was only room for "fish."
When you think beyond fish entrées to more options — such as hot and cheesy crab dip, shrimp cocktail, lobster bisque, clams oreganata, shellfish stuffed mushrooms or lightly-dressed greens with goat cheese and fried clams or oysters — it's that much easier to dream up ideas for multiple "courses." Baccalà is a must-have for many, and if you're not a bisque person, why not try out a cioppino, the hearty stew hailing from San Francisco? If you're feeling especially sophisticated, aim for tartare, poke, ceviche or carpaccio. Or even sushi!
An incredible assortment of seafood-studded pastas or risottos are typically part of the rotation. For many, another interesting inclusion is brandade, which is a creamy potato-salt cod mixture. Also, don't feel as though you have to purchase only fresh fish. There are so many wonderful canned or tinned seafood options on the market right now, all of which would be incredibly welcome at a Feast of the Seven Fishes.
Other ideas? Throw in a whole fish main course (perhaps a roasted branzino with fennel, herbs and lemon), plus a super-light first course (raw oysters on the half shell with mignonette, an appetizer of tiny fish like sardines or anchovies with orange segments, thinly-sliced fennel, olive oil and some flaky salt) and round it all out with a post-entrée fish dish (a simple shrimp tempura between the main course and the dessert would be neat).
Or get a little outlandish and incorporate some sort of fish or shellfish essence into your dessert. I know, I know, that might be a bit much for some guests (or those who aren't especially culinarily adventurous), but a super subtle hint of fish in your dessert is one way to fully incorporate the ethos of "Seven Fish" throughout the entire meal.
Other wonderful options involve shaved bottarga, calamari, catfish, caviar, halibut, mahi mahi, monkfish, octopus, salmon, sea bass, swordfish, uni and — of course! — tuna. There's really no limit to the number of fish dishes you can develop; regardless, there will be something for everyone.