Eating smoked fish for breakfast is a rite of passage for any Jewish food fan. And for true devotees, nothing brings joy like a bagel spread just so with cream cheese and layered with piles of silky, coral-colored cured salmon slices. But for those of us who did not grow up accompanying our dads to the appetizing store on Sunday mornings, a trip to the Jewish fish counter can feel a bit overwhelming. Just what, exactly, are all of those hefty filets sitting behind the glass? Which fish are cured-only, and which are smoked? Why is the herring swimming in a bath of sour cream? And what the heck is belly lox, anyway?
To help clarify, I spoke with Peter Shelsky, owner of Shelsky’s Appetizing and Delicatessen in Brooklyn. For the past five years, Shelsky has slung some of the city’s best cured and smoked fish, along with other Eastern European-inspired favorites (the inventive Clementine-and-ginger rugelach are to die for). With his guidance, I offer this Cliff’s Notes take on the world of Jewish fish. Fold up a printed out copy and stick it in your wallet — or keep the page bookmarked on your phone’s browser. That way, the next time an urge for smoked salmon strikes — and strike it will — you will be ready.
Belly Lox True to its name, belly lox is cured salmon that comes from the fatty part of the fish’s belly. It is cured with salt but not smoked, which gives it a silky texture and intensely — almost aggressively — salty flavor. “I call it the hangover cure because it forces you to drink water all day,” Shelsky said. Shelsky’s go-to sandwich is a well-toasted bialy with scallion cream cheese, tomato and slices of belly lox draped over the top.
Gravlax This Scandinavian take on cured fish is also left unsmoked. But the brine is a bit more complex, combining salt and sugar, and usually fresh dill, lemon juice and a splash of Aquavit. The cured salmon filets are often pressed in finely chopped fresh dill, giving the outside a beautiful herby-green color. Shelsky’s cures its own gravlax in-house.
Smoked Salmon/Gaspe Nova When people order lox at the fish counter, this is usually what they are thinking about. A whole side of salmon is brined in salt and sugar then cold smoked over a mix of hard and fruit woods. The resulting fish has a delicate woodsy flavor and marbled texture that is great on a bagel. Shelsky said that an overwhelming percentage of the Gaspe Nova sold throughout New York City comes from ACME Smokehouse in Brooklyn.
Kippered/Baked Salmon Here, a full side of salmon is hot smoked, which means it is cooked (unlike belly lox or Gaspe Nova). Shelsky called it “super luscious” — like delicately poached salmon, but with a smoky flavor. He uses it to make his baked-salmon salad. “Because it already has that wonderful fattiness, you do not have to use a lot of mayonnaise,” he said.
Alaskan-Style Smoked Salmon Shelsky sells a wild sockeye salmon from Alaska that is hot smoked over alder wood. “It has virtually no fat so the texture is dryer than other smoked salmon,” he said, while the taste is clean and fresh. “If I put it on a bagel with cream cheese, it gets completely lost,” he said. Instead, he recommends eating it straight up as an elegant appetizer with a glass of white wine.
Smoked Whitefish Whitefish come from the Great Lakes. They are typically hot smoked and sold whole or turned into whitefish salad. Shelsky began sourcing the shop’s whitefish from a family-run smokehouse out of Michigan after he was impressed by the dense, meaty fish they sent him as a sample. “They smoke the fish with the scales on, which makes it extra juicy,” he said.
Smoked Sable Sable is a fish in the black-cod family that was once inexpensive, but has become pricier in recent years. It gets cured with paprika, garlic, salt and sugar, then smoked at a low temperature, giving it a buttery texture and incomparable flavor. “It is like eating the fish version of bologna,” Shelsky said.
Smoked Mackerel Mackerel filets are full of omega 3 fatty acid and have a full, rich flavor (“It’s definitely a fishier fish,” said Shelsky) that is cut with a campfire smokiness. The filets come crusted with cracked peppercorns. “Think steak au poivre,” Shelsky said.
Smoked Sturgeon One of the most sophisticated fish in the counter, smoked sturgeon is ultra fatty, flaky and luxurious with a fresh-water essence you can taste. “It’s special,” Shelsky said. “I mean, caviar comes from these guys.” Some kosher authorities do not condone sturgeon’s consumption because although it has scales, as a kosher fish must, the fish loses its scales near the end of its life.
Herring The beloved favorite of old Jewish men everywhere, these little fish are cured in salt. Shelsky’s buys herring filets cured, desalinates them in fresh water for three days, then pickles them with spices, vinegar and sugar. The pickled herring is then doused in a whole-grain-mustard and dill sauce. Other common herring flavorings include matjes (wine, sugar and spices like clove, mace and allspice), and sour cream. Shelsky’s also sells an oak-smoked herring that it imports from Paris and preserves in vegetable oil.
Bering Ciscos Chubs, small, fresh water fish, used to be a standard of the Jewish fish counter. But Shelsky told me that Zebra mussels invaded the Great Lakes, “which means there are virtually no chubs anymore.” Instead, the shop carries Bering ciscos, a similar fish that is cured in salt and sugar and smoked. Shelsky swears they are just as good as chubs - juicy and rich. “If I didn’t tell you, you would never know,” he said.
Leah Koenig is a contributing editor at the Forward and author of “Modern Jewish Cooking: Recipes & Customs for Today’s Kitchen,” Chronicle Books (2015).