What’s The Deal With Herring?

herring with onionsWhen you think of Polish food, you don’t necessarily think of herring (“sledzie” in Polish), but most people from Poland will tell you that they eat it frequently and enjoy it. On the other hand, trying to get a non-Pole to try (and like) herring is a challenge, so it’s definitely an acquired and nostalgic kind of taste.

What is Herring?

Herring is a fish that lives primarily in the North Pacific and Atlantic but also in the Baltic Sea (Wikipedia), which abuts Poland on its North border. With its proximity, it’s not a surprise that it’s become a delicacy in the Polish kitchen.

Herring’s taste is strong, salty, and fishy. The texture is very mushy after the initial curing, becoming a little firmer after the final preparation. It tends to take on the flavor of whatever it’s cured in, becoming slightly different in taste and texture depending on how it’s finished off. Herring is always caught in the wild, and it’s an environmentally-responsible fish. It’s also a very good source of brain-food Omega 3’s.

Typical Use of Herring

Herring is best known as a “holiday fish.” Catholicism prohibits consumption of meat before Christmas and Easter (in Polish tradition, anyway), so Poles have incorporated a wide variety of seafood in their holiday cooking.

But its many variants and ability to be stored make it versatile enough to be prepared any time of the year for any occasion.


After being caught, herring is first cured in salt water. For home prep, you’d buy herring in this state from a barrel at the local store. After getting it home, bones are removed and the herring is cut into small, bite-size pieces (see photo above).

At this point, there are three typical methods of finishing off the herring. In all cases, the herring would most likely be layered with the other ingredients in a glass dish and placed in the refrigerator for a few days to finish curing. At that point, it could be served at a holiday meal or enjoyed periodically from its refrigerated storage. The three classic variants in Poland are:

  • In olive oil, typically with onions, salt and bay leaves.
  • With sour cream and onions (my personal favorite, because the sour cream cuts the strong flavor of the fish).
  • In vinegar, also typically with onions, sugar and other flavors.

Holiday and modern varieties of herring preparation might include more extravagant ingredients, like carrots and peppers or other vegetables that add color to the presentation.

To cut the taste of the fish, and like most other things in Poland, herring is typically served with sliced rye bread and enjoyed without any sides.

Where to Buy Herring

For traditional Polish herring in every variety, I visit my local Polish deli, but herring is also readily available in almost every supermarket, many times as a traditional Jewish dish in the refrigerated section. Just don’t buy too much for your first taste! 😉

Photo credit: snowpea&bokchoi