St Petersburg’s legendary cucumber fish: koryushka (with recipe)

(Photo credit: Von Yao)

Spring has come to St Petersburg and the smell of fresh cucumber has started wafting through the streets, signalling the start of the Koryushka Festival

There is a saying in St Petersburg that says “when koryushka run—spring is here.” You might have heard of it already, or at least smelled it. Every May, the emblematic fish—a symbol of the city—engulfs the streets of St Petersburg with its unmistakable smell of fresh cucumbers.

When the frozen canals start melting and the temperature of the water increases to 4C (39,2F), shoals of koryushka (smelt) make their way into the Neva River and, shortly after, into every street market in the city.

In Russia, the fish is strongly associated with the north-western part of the country, and the basins of the North and Baltic Seas and the Ladoga and Onega Lakes. When alive, the fish has very beautiful appearance: its colours range from a brownish-green back to silver flanks with blue tints. Its size is typically very small: most often between 6 and 7 1/2 inches, and only in rare cases it reaches the length of 10 inches.

(Photo credit: Von Yao)

According to legend, the abundance of the fish in the waters surrounding St Petersburg was an additional argument behind Peter the Great’s decision to establish the city in its present location. Seeing the schools of koryushka populating the Neva River, he allegedly thought that erecting the city here would greatly reduce the risk of starvation. Although many historians take this statement with a grain of salt, the famous fish has proved to be of vital importance in the history of the city. In 1705, Peter the Great issued a decree that supported local fishermen who fished koryushka and in the spring of 1708, the first festival dedicated to the fish took place in St Petersburg.

(Photo credit: Wikimedia)

As predicted by the founder of the city, koryushka saved many of St Petersburg’s residents from starvation more than once. One of the most emblematic examples happened during the siege of Leningrad, when the fish was one of the few food sources available in the city. Today, its importance is celebrated and remembered with a yearly festival and a small silver statue that is found on the wall of the Obvodny Kanal in Kronstadt.

The tradition and celebration of koryushka had largely been forgotten for the past 300 years, until 2002, when the koryushka festival made its way back into the city’s calendar of celebrations. Since then, it has been an annual festive event. This year it will be held on 13 and 14 May in the Lenexpo Exhibition Complex. The festival will include an opening ceremony with plenty of fish soup (last year—1000 litres!) and a programme rich with music and other festivities. More information about the programme can be found on the festival’s website (in Russian).

A popular conviction in St Petersburg says that if you didn’t eat much koryushka, you will miss out on spring and let your fortune pass by.

Don’t miss out all the good things that spring can bring you and try to cook koryushka on your own. Here is one easy recipe to bring koryushka to your table.

Vegetable oil

1. Small fish don’t need to be scaled, but bigger ones should be scaled a bit. Separate the head, gut, and clean the fish.
2. Add salt to taste.
3. Put the pan on stove, pour oil, and heat.
4. Whisk one or two eggs. Dip the fish into the eggs and subsequently in a plate of flour.
5. Fry both sides until a golden brown colour.

Serve with any side dishes, for example, boiled potatoes or fresh vegetables. Enjoy!

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