Wild, Sustainable Herring: the Fish You Should Be Eating and Why

Northwest Herring Week kicks off at 20+ Seattle restaurants
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If you’re of Scandinavian descent, grew up on the East Coast, or have an Ashkenazi Jewish grandmother, you probably know the merits of herring. Everyone else, even in Seattle, one of the country’s fish epicenters, has little clue of the affordable, mild-flavored fish or any of the other 200+ species of fish swimming in our waters. We’re just too focused on salmon, I guess.

A few seafood champions are working hard to change that by bringing wild Alaskan herring back into mainstream fish markets and restaurants via Northwest Herring Week (June 20-26). It is an opportunity to taste unique dishes showcasing this unsung seafood hero--which happens to taste a lot like trout and have a ton of Omega-3s--in more than 20 restaurants around Seattle including Orfeo, Little Uncle, Stoneburner, Sushi Kappo Tamura, Palace Kitchen, and The Whale Wins

But organizers are hoping it's more than just another foodie festival. Northwest Herring Week was founded in 2015 by Lexi of Scandinavian Distillery and Old Ballard Liquor Co. And she's hoping to do a lot more than just sell some fancy herring dishes. Lexi and others involved in Northwest Herring Week want to reposition herring as a viable local product and not just for a week. It all started last year, when Lexi was looking for fresh herring fillets (not smoked or pickled) for Tumble Swede, her Scandinavian pop up, and could only find imported Atlantic herring--even though the fish grows right here in our waters.

Puzzled, she began to do research and discovered that the herring stocks in Puget Sound crashed about ten years ago and became unavailable. Nobody ever noticed because everyone had stopped eating herring. “This raises a couple of issues,” Lexi explained. “First, herring is sustainable in a much bigger way than something like salmon or halibut. With all the focus we’re putting on responsible eating and stewardship of the environment, it bugged me that these larger, sexier, more expensive fish were being idolized over the humble fish that are far more sustainable and healthy.”

Second, she said, there’s the broader environmental implication. Why did the stocks crash? What else is being affected?

“Can you imagine the public outcry if the oyster stocks suddenly crashed and people couldn’t get oysters? There would be rioting in favor of environmental studies and pollution laws,” she said. “But that’s exactly what happened with herring and nobody cared or noticed. If we can get people eating these fish again, maybe they’ll start to give two shits about the waters where they grow.”

Lastly, there’s the culinary implication. “If we allow ourselves, as a city, to be coddled into laziness by lack of selection and unchallenging food, there’s no way that we’ll ever grow our culinary scene out of the provincial reputation we still struggle with,” Lexi said. “If we ever want national attention and respect, we’ve got to start looking beyond what’s in the grocery store freezer and asking for harder, more challenging foods.”

Fish is a big one. According to Lexi and the folks behind Northwest Herring Week, there are more than 250 different fish that grow in Puget Sound but we only eat four or five varieties. “That’s crazy, especially when local chefs are falling all over themselves for imported branzino or sea bass instead of exploring the amazing culinary diversity we have growing right here,” Lexi said. “Chefs and eaters need to get off their respective asses and try something new without needing to see it on Food Network first. Hopefully, this will be a step toward that and a healthy reminder that there are really delicious fish that you haven’t thought of eating before.”

Amen. In the spirit of our bountiful seas, let’s get out there and eat some herring this week. Alaska's largest herring fishery in Togiak, Alaska, is providing the herring for use by chefs and sale by grocers during Northwest Herring Week. The Northwest Herring Week website has the most updated list of participating restaurants and their featured dishes. At presstime, here are a few that stood out to us.

Lark: Crispy herring tartine with dill aioli, fennel cabbage slaw, malt vinegar gastrique and gaufrette potatoes.

Le Petit Cochon: Tobiak herring “Old Bay” escabeché, snap pea and fava bean panzanella, M.F. Ranch, Collins Farm peaches, pickled onions, mustard dill, tempura squash blossom.

Little Uncle: Geng Som Pla, southern Thai sour curry, spicy with Togiak herring, green papaya and greens.

Luc: Cold poached herring with pickled vegetable, potato salad, olive and petit pepper tapenade. Also: seared herring with hazelnut brown butter, lemon and summer vegetable salad.

Salted Sea: Smoked herring hush puppies with sambal ketchup.