Seafood has always played an important role in Italian cuisine, and in Italian-American communities, this reaches its pinnacle every Christmas Eve with The Feast of the Seven Fishes. Find out more about this tasty tradition with our guide to some of the festive seafood dishes you might expect to find on a Feast of the Seven Fishes table.
What is the Feast of the Seven Fishes?
The Feast of the Seven Fishes has its origins in Southern Italy, with a Christmas Eve celebration known as La Vigilia, or ‘The Vigil’. La Vigilia is a vigil counting down to the time of Christ’s birth, which was traditionally placed at midnight on the threshold of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
As the day before a feast, Christmas Eve is observed as a fast day by Roman Catholics, meaning that no meat or animal fat may be consumed. Fish are not classed as meat for these purposes, however, and thus are traditionally the food of choice for Catholics on Christmas Eve. Luckily for the people of Southern Italy, their shores offer a wealth of delicious seafood, and La Vigilia soon became more feast than fast.
Southern Italian immigrants brought their favourite seafood celebration with them when they settled in the USA, where it was first observed in New York’s Little Italy some time in the late 1800s. Soon, the name had changed to The Feast of the Seven Fishes, although no one seems quite sure of the significance of the number seven. It is thought likely to refer to either the seven sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church, or perhaps to the seven hills of Rome.
The feast is traditionally served in the early hours of the morning, after midnight mass, and usually comprises seven different fish courses. Different families have different traditions, however, and not everyone adheres rigidly to seven courses. Some families even serve twelve courses, in honour of the twelve apostles. Similarly, different dishes will be traditional for different families, but there are certain dishes that seem to be universally popular.
If you’re planning your own Feast of the Seven Fishes this year, here are some of the best-loved traditional dishes that you might want to try.
Begin your feast with some bite-sized appetisers - you’ve got seven courses to get through after all. Your first course should be small, but full of flavour, to whet the appetite without being too filling. These deliciously buttery baked clams from My Recipes are a great place to start. Baked to perfection and topped with crispy breadcrumbs, bacon and thyme, these tender, briny morsels will have everyone diving in for more, but no-one will ruin their appetite.
Fried smelts are a real Feast of the Seven Fishes favourite, and many Italian Americans have fond memories of devouring these deep-fried beauties on Christmas Eves past. Smelts are small whitebait-type fish with a delicate flesh and a mild, slightly salty flavour. They are usually coated in a light batter and fried until crispy, like this finger-licking fried smelts recipe from Binky’s Culinary Carnival.
Smelts are so tiny that they can usually be eaten whole, bones and all. If you have any over 6 inches long, you should probably remove the heads and guts, but this can easily be achieved using kitchen shears and an old toothbrush. Fried smelts are the perfect size for your second course, and they taste great served with aioli or tartar sauce.
Grilled shrimp scampi
Shrimp scampi is a uniquely Italian-American dish, thought to be an adaptation of an old Italian dish using ingredients that were more readily available in the USA. When Italian settlers found that scampi were more scarce in America, they made their favourite scampi dishes using shrimp instead, hence the dish was referred to as ‘shrimp scampi’, meaning shrimp prepared in the style of scampi. The result is plump, tender shrimp, cooked in garlic and butter or olive oil, often with a squeeze of lemon and some herbs. For our third course, we love these grilled shrimp scampi from Striped Spatula, where the shrimp are grilled instead of pan fried for a slight char and deliciously smoky flavour.
Spaghetti with clams
Traditional Italian meals serve pasta before the main event, and it doesn’t get much more traditionally Italian than spaghetti with clams. Our authentic Italian spaghetti alle vongole is simple but satisfying, and makes the perfect fourth course for your Feast of the Seven Fishes. This dish calls for the freshest of clams, cooked with white wine, a little chilli and plenty of garlic.
Baccalá is perhaps the dish that is most strongly associated with the Feast of the Seven Fishes. It is a dried, salted fish, usually cod, and is traditionally left to soak in the sink in the nights leading up to Christmas Eve to rehydrate and draw out the excess salt. Once prepared, it can be cooked in various ways, which, again, tend to depend on family traditions. It can be cooked in a tomato sauce with capers and black olives, or simply fried in a little oil with some parsley and a squeeze of lemon, like this recipe for baccalá fritto from Dream of Italy.
Calamari, or ‘galamad’ as it’s known in some families, is another Italian seafood favourite, made from deep-fried rings of squid meat. If you’ve never tried the real deal, don’t be put off by the slightly rubbery versions you get in some restaurants. Cooked properly, calamari is crispy, tender and light. Follow the dos and don’ts in this easy to follow fried calamari recipe from The Mediterranean Dish for perfect calamari every time.
No seafood feast would be complete without a luxurious lobster dish, and this baked stuffed lobster from The Spruce Eats makes the perfect centrepiece for your Feast of the Seven Fishes table.
There’s no time to feel sad when the Feast of the Seven Fishes is over, because Christmas Day is just hours away. Prepare for your next big feast with these fun and festive Christmas Dinner ideas.