A Starring Role for the Little Humble Herring
By JOAN NATHAN
Published: December 13, 2011
IN a fancy women’s department store in Osaka, Japan, earlier this year, shoppers lined up for one of the latest food fads in the country, jars of pickled herring.“We Japanese love herring,” said Masayoshi Takayama, the chef and owner of Masa in the Time Warner Center in Manhattan. “At Masa we serve dried salted herring, soaked in rice water for five days and marinated in tosazu vinegar.” Then it is simmered in dried-bonito broth with soy sauce, sake and more vinegar.
That’s right, pickled herring is on one of New York’s priciest prix fixe menus.
Peter Shelsky, a catering chef, is also pickling his own herring, in the less rarified confines of his artisanal appetizing store in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, Shelsky’s Smoked Fish.
And, with a bit more refinement, Laurent Manrique serves lightly smoked herring, imported from France, with boiled potatoes at Millesime, his French bistro in Manhattan.
“Surprisingly, smoked herring and quenelles de brochet are our two most popular appetizers,” he said.
What used to be food for Jewish grandfathers, particularly on holidays like Hanukkah, which starts next Tuesday night, is showing up on the menus of restaurants both hip and elegant.
Herring with wasabi and yuzu kosho paste is one of the haute Jewish dishes at Kutsher’s Tribeca. Benoit and Brasserie Julien both serve French smoked herring with potatoes. A notable dish at the dearly departed M. Wells in Queens was smoked herring Caesar salad.
Shoppers are finding a more appealing selection in stores. Herring used to be pickled in only wine sauce or cream sauce for Jewish holidays. No more. Now it’s in dill sauce, in curry sauce, with pickles, with mustard sauce.
“Whole Foods has much to do with this increased interest,” said Richard Schiff, the general manager of Acme Smoked Fish in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, a main supplier in New York. “They want not just one or two herring jars, but lots.” And lightly smoked French herring is also now available to consumers at Whole Foods and other stores.
“Year to year we track numbers of herring,” said Josh Russ Tupper, a fourth-generation owner of Russ & Daughters, the gold standard for cured and smoked fish stores in New York, with at least 11 different herring varieties. “For us, the herring business has been increasing 5 to 10 percent a year.”
Feature Foods International in Brampton, Ontario, one of the major sources of herring in North America, processes more than 15,000 barrels, each weighing about 220 pounds, every year. Years ago, it looked as if its customer base would disappear.
“It is true that in Minnesota and Florida, when every old Jew or Scandinavian dies, we lose a case of herring,” said Lorne Krongold, the president and owner of Feature Foods. “Luckily, in the ’80s and ’90s the new immigration, with the breakup of the Soviet Union, replaced the aging generation.”
Now demand is even higher. To appeal to new tastes, the company has started selling smaller jars of herring on private labels for companies.
“My grandfather Shlomo was really the herring legend,” said Mr. Krongold, 57, known as “the herring czar.” From the herring business in Poland, his grandfather went to Canada in 1927 and sold barrels of heavily salted herring from Norway and Iceland, and then from the Maritime Provinces in the ’30s.
After World War II, Lorne Krongold’s father, Joseph, started bottling pickled North Atlantic herring from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Newfoundland. “We process the herring in our sauces, and places like Russ & Daughters further potchky with the product to put their spin on it,” Lorne Krongold said, using a Yiddish word for tinker.
Herring’s resurgence comes as the sources and quality of much of the world’s seafood have come under suspicion. Once one of the most abundant fish in the world, it is still caught from sustainable wild stocks. It is also inexpensive and high in omega-3 fatty acids. (It’s approved for the fashionable Dukan high-protein diet.)
The fish course through the North Atlantic in schools of tens of thousands. They are caught in enormous nets called purse seines, and then cured with a sprinkling of salt. Later they are soaked in fresh water and pickled, a style always favored in Scandinavia, Germany and Eastern Europe.
In France and the Netherlands, herring is often served fresh. In Normandy, it is also lightly smoked with oak.
This year, the Jean Claude David brand of French herring is available to consumers in vacuum-packed containers in the United States, thanks to Hervé Diers, who recently bought the company and is trying to save a tradition.
Mr. Diers has been building more fireplaces to smoke the fish, which is caught off the coast of Normandy near Boulogne-sur-Mer in late summer.
“In the 1950s, over 150 artisanal smokers smoked their herring,” Mr. Diers said. “Today only 7 remain.”
Mr. Shelsky is taking an artisanal approach to herring in Brooklyn. He’s pickling fish in a former lingerie shop with its original tin roof. He buys tubs of salted herring and soaks the fish for two days, then pickles it in white vinegar, sugar and spices. He was recently fiddling with a pumpkin-spiced herring.
“I find that processed pickled herring is too sweet for me,” Mr. Shelsky said.
“Earlier on, when I first opened the store, I made a foie gras and pickled herring terrine,” he said. “I think we might revisit it down the road.”
Shelsky sells three sandwiches with herring, including the Brooklyn Transplant made with smoked salmon, apple horseradish, cream cheese and pickled herring salad served on seedless rye.
In Washington, D.C., at the homey Scandinavian restaurant Domku Bar and Cafe, hipsters dine on a smoked herring pie and a herring scramble.
“I learned to love herring when I was in the Peace Corps in Poland,” said Kera Carpenter, the chef and owner. On a trip to Scandinavia, she tasted pickled herring, dipped in bread crumbs and fried, delicate and delicious.
With this dish, Ms. Carpenter has not “reduced all the beauty of the world to a small pickled fish,” as Diane Keaton’s herring merchant husband did in “Love and Death,” but it’s a very popular appetizer.
A version of this article appeared in print on December 14, 2011, on page D7 of the New York edition with the headline: A Starring Role for the Little Humble Herring.