Whitefish Salad

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Bagels are my madeline; one bite and a lifetime’s worth of poppy seeds and bad breath spill forth. I’ve written much about bagels on the web–this tribute to Bagelworks in Boca Raton, a bagel love letter for Serious Eats–but I’ve written very little about a bagel topping that’s been a constant in my life and in the lives of many Jews who I hold near and dear: whitefish salad. What’s whitefish salad? Let me tell you all about it.

Whitefish salad is like tuna salad except it’s made with whitefish. That difference sounds unremarkable, but the differences between tuna and whitefish are significant. For starters, whitefish is much fishier than tuna. It’s also much oilier and more boney. Consequently, whitefish salad is a zillion times more flavorful than tuna salad–the oiliness and the fishiness give it a unique character similar to, though not nearly as strong as, sardines and/or anchovies. Like those oily fish, whitefish has a zip and a zing and elevates a humdrum bagel sandwich to the category of decadent treat. It also meets my criteria for good bagelage: it induces terrible breath. The worse your breath, the better the bagelage.

Growing up, my brother was always more of a whitefish salad fan than I was. Sitting at Bagelworks or a place called Boca Grove near Ross Dress for Less (where grandma would go after bageling with us) Michael would order the whitefish salad and I’d order a bagel with nova spread, my standard bagel fare. Inevitably, Michael would pull a long, thin bone out of his mouth while eating his whitefish salad and my mother or grandmother would shriek: “Michael! Be careful. Check for bones.”

And if there were too many bones for safe consumption, of course they would send it back. Whitefish salad can be dangerous like that. In fact, I’d say more often than not you’ll find bones in a whitefish salad sandwich. Though an inconvenience, it’s also a reminder of white fish salad’s humble origins as Jewish peasant food. Presumably, the fish was smoked first for preservation purposes and then, when it was time to serve, fancified with sour cream and onion and egg to transform something meant for survival into something meant for pleasure. Isn’t that true of all of the world’s great food? Ingredients meant for survival transformed into something to induce pleasure?

The pleasure induced by whitefish salad is serious enough that if you’ve never had it, I suggest you do so ASAP. The picture you see above was taken in the window at Murray’s Bagels on 6th Ave. and 13th Street. If you go, order an everything bagel (don’t say toasted, they don’t toast!) with whitefish salad, tomato and onion. Get an obligatory Tropicana orange juice to wash it down–the acid from the OJ cuts the fat of the whitefish–and sit in the window. Look at your reflection, and as you bite in watch as you transform into a hassidic rabbi like that scene in “Annie Hall” when Alvy visits Annie’s WASPy family.

Nothing makes you Jewier than Whitefish. Or happier. Give it a try.

43 comments

  1. Mmmmmmm…I want to be happy and Jew-y…I wonder if my way-out-west bagel joint has whitefish salad? I’ll have to check it out! I don’t know if I can handle OJ with seafood, though. Gives me the shivers thinking about it.

  2. I’ve been a vegetarian for 10+ years, but just one look at that picture and I know exactly what that bagel tastes like. And I am hungry.

  3. Hi,

    Can you please tell me the name and artist of song in your Washington, D.C. video?

    Thanks from DC!

  4. I’m a bagel loving Jewish girl and proud of it! Everything or onion… lox cream cheese… yum.

  5. Being the waspy girl that I am, I’ve always wanted to know what Whitefish was/tasted like. Thanks for being my jewish food ambassador.

  6. Despite my love of sardines and anchovies and other oily fish, somehow, I have never tried whitefish salad.

    I think I have to remedy this problem ASAP.

  7. Being the daughter and grand-daughter of bagel bakers, having teethed on them, I find it a shame

    what’s sold as bagel today.

    My grandfather came to the US (from Russia, now

    Ukraine) the beginning of the 20th century and

    he brought his family trade (bagel baking) to

    Brooklyn, NY. Back then, and up until the late 1950’s, their sales were exclusive to Jewish neighborhoods. My grandfather would never have imagined its popularity would have spread so widely. But, then again, the product that’s now sold as being a bagel isn’t. REAL bagels are much

    smaller in size (the current size is larger than

    the large bagel of the past which was known as “the bull”). REAL bagel have a hard, shiney, outside crust and a dense inside … and they were kettle boiled (not steamed) and baked in a

    brick oven. When, in the 1960’s, my Dad and his brother opened their bakery in Howard Beach, Queens, they did make one adaption … they used

    a revolving oven … but their bagel were still

    REAL bagel (a few basic ingredient … no preservatives … boiled in a kettle … and hand

    made).

    Very early Sunday morning … on the way home from the bakery … my Dad would go over to Banner’s smoke house (in Brooklyn) and buy the end pieces of whitefish and baked salmon and my Mom would make her own whitefish and baked salmon salads. Sheer bliss.

  8. Being the daughter and grand-daughter of bagel bakers, having teethed on them, I find it a shame

    what’s sold as bagel today.

    My grandfather came to the US (from Russia, now

    Ukraine) the beginning of the 20th century and

    he brought his family trade (bagel baking) to

    Brooklyn, NY. Back then, and up until the late 1950’s, their sales were exclusive to Jewish neighborhoods. My grandfather would never have imagined its popularity would have spread so widely. But, then again, the product that’s now sold as being a bagel isn’t. REAL bagels are much

    smaller in size (the current size is larger than

    the large bagel of the past which was known as “the bull”). REAL bagel have a hard, shiney, outside crust and a dense inside … and they were kettle boiled (not steamed) and baked in a

    brick oven. When, in the 1960’s, my Dad and his brother opened their bakery in Howard Beach, Queens, they did make one adaption … they used

    a revolving oven … but their bagel were still

    REAL bagel (a few basic ingredient … no preservatives … boiled in a kettle … and hand

    made).

    Very early Sunday morning … on the way home from the bakery … my Dad would go over to Banner’s smoke house (in Brooklyn) and buy the end pieces of whitefish and baked salmon and my Mom would make her own whitefish and baked salmon salads. Sheer bliss.

  9. Being the daughter and grand-daughter of bagel bakers, having teethed on them, I find it a shame

    what’s sold as bagel today.

    My grandfather came to the US (from Russia, now

    Ukraine) the beginning of the 20th century and

    he brought his family trade (bagel baking) to

    Brooklyn, NY. Back then, and up until the late 1950’s, their sales were exclusive to Jewish neighborhoods. My grandfather would never have imagined its popularity would have spread so widely. But, then again, the product that’s now sold as being a bagel isn’t. REAL bagels are much

    smaller in size (the current size is larger than

    the large bagel of the past which was known as “the bull”). REAL bagel have a hard, shiney, outside crust and a dense inside … and they were kettle boiled (not steamed) and baked in a

    brick oven. When, in the 1960’s, my Dad and his brother opened their bakery in Howard Beach, Queens, they did make one adaption … they used

    a revolving oven … but their bagel were still

    REAL bagel (a few basic ingredient … no preservatives … boiled in a kettle … and hand

    made).

    Very early Sunday morning … on the way home from the bakery … my Dad would go over to Banner’s smoke house (in Brooklyn) and buy the end pieces of whitefish and baked salmon and my Mom would make her own whitefish and baked salmon salads. Sheer bliss.

  10. My post came up 3 times. How did that happen?

    Well … since I’m here. Once you’re tried

    whitefish salad … dive in and have some carp

    or sable or baked salmon. These foods are to die for ;-)

  11. Every culture has its fish salad, and some are far fishier/oilier than whitefish! Try canned Jack Mackeral made into a fish salad – now that’s true fishy taste! Actually quite good.

    But my absolute favorite is made with fresh Albacore Tuna, cooked any way you wish, and made into a salad, again any way you choose – this will cause you to celebrate leftovers more than your original creation!

    jm

  12. Yummmmmmmmmmmmmmmm whitefish. My favorite! Although I do have a hard time convincing non-Jews of its deliciousness…

    Wish I could get a good bagel around here, too.

  13. Yummmmmmmmmmmmmmmm whitefish. My favorite! Although I do have a hard time convincing non-Jews of its deliciousness…

    Wish I could get a good bagel around here, too.

  14. Oh yum…too bad the next time I’m near a real New York bagel shop it’ll be for Passover!

  15. Oh yum…too bad the next time I’m near a real New York bagel shop it’ll be during Passover!

  16. I was introduced to bagels, with lox cream cheese or white fish salad by this Jewish college classmate in 1965. He had flown in from Queens that morning. Do you have any idea how hard it was to get bagels in down-state Illinois in 1965?

    He and I are still friends and I still like the white fish.

  17. the most off the wall, delicious thing in the world: the Smokey Joe sandwich, comprised of whitefish salad, lox, cream cheese, lettuce and tomato. I had these for the first time at my sister’s Bat Mitzvah, and consumed nothing but the leftover for the next week

  18. I HAD to go have a bagel after reading this. I had already eaten a bran muffin–but I still needed a bagel with cream cheese and lox (my preferred option).

    There are few good bagel joints in the Bay Area. Luckily, I work by one. Otherwise, I would have been longing all day.

    I love Jew food!

  19. Tuna is fishy enough for me, thanks, but I can appreciate your rhapsody over the whitefish.

    And man…I thought bagels got toasted only to disguise the fact that they’re not *real* bagels. Real bagels, as Phyllis described them, are what I ate in my youth, and they should never be toasted. Sacrilege!

  20. Love whitefish salad too! I was recently disappointed at Russ & Daughters when I learned that they do not carry (and have never carried) whitefish salad. Theirs is whitefish and salmon salad. It’s not bad, but it’s not whitefish salad. I tend to like mine salty and smoky, definitely on a toasted bagel. The warmth from the bagel seems to do something wonderful to the salad. Mmmmmm. Far superior to tuna in every way. Thanks for the great topic!

  21. re bagels in London

    Go to Brick Lane and walk down in the direction you’d have to go to get to the flower market (I’m not a London native so sorry for vaugeness!) There is an amazing old school bagel shop and they are cheap (80 p?) and wonderful. Not sure if they have the whitefish salad but the bagels are divine.

  22. What a great post! One of many, but this one made me salivate – on a full stomach!

    Growing up in the Northeast I have great memories of visiting cousins in NYC. Actually, the best part was our ritual stop on our way home at a (real) bagel bakery, and eating bagels, bialies and pletzels on the way home. And having great bagels for the next couple of days…

    I moved to NY and for a few years lived across the street from Ess-A-Bagel. Boy do I miss Sunday morning brunches – my favorite is a sesame bagel (warm from the oven – no need to toast is correct) with a schmear, nova, red onion and tomato (only in season!), or smoked sable.

    Guess I need to read your blog between visits back to NY from the Bay area!

  23. Helen, whitefish is a Great Lakes fish, anywhere from 9 or 10 to 16 inches long (but the smaller ones are more tender). Definitely fresh water. There’s probably a Eurasian equivalent. It looks sort of like a big herring. When smoked, its skin has a wonderful gold color.

  24. When I lived and worked in Queens I used to stop at a bagle bakery on Queens Blvd (and 69th Street I think) and get a fresh baked hot bagel each morning on the way to work. They were so good and tasty that i could eat one plain as often as not. Cream cheese and lox or fish salad or melted cheese (Jarlseberg is the best) was for weekend mornings. I love white fish salad and also like chopped herring salad which is quite sweet as well as tasty. Smoked Sable was my favorite.

    I can’t get a good boiled bagle here in Athens (I think you can get them in Atlanta in Tocco Hills) but Panarra’s are about the best I have here. I have to get back to New York some time. Thanks for the post it brings back good memories.

  25. When I lived and worked in Queens I used to stop at a bagle bakery on Queens Blvd (and 69th Street I think) and get a fresh baked hot bagel each morning on the way to work. They were so good and tasty that i could eat one plain as often as not. Cream cheese and lox or fish salad or melted cheese (Jarlseberg is the best) was for weekend mornings. I love white fish salad and also like chopped herring salad which is quite sweet as well as tasty. Smoked Sable was my favorite.

    I can’t get a good boiled bagle here in Athens (I think you can get them in Atlanta in Tocco Hills) but Panarra’s are about the best I have here. I have to get back to New York some time. Thanks for the post it brings back good memories.

  26. nothing is better than whitefish salad on a bagel so good on the outside it doesn’t have to be toasted. nothing makes me feel jew-ier either and i am now going to have to get up in the morning and go on a quest to find said whitefish salad in South Miami. Shabbat Shalom.

  27. nothing is better than whitefish salad on a bagel so good on the outside it doesn’t have to be toasted. nothing makes me feel jew-ier either and i am now going to have to get up in the morning and go on a quest to find said whitefish salad in South Miami. Shabbat Shalom.

  28. Whitefish salad is sheer heaven. funny how nobody addressed the controversy of whether they like sweet or not. (i hope that’s not just a jersey thing) i never eat sweet whitefish just as i never eat sweet gifilte fish.

  29. As an Irish Catholic girl I never knew from bagels or whitefish until I moved into Manhattan to attend nursing school. Being at Beth Israel Nursing school I was mere blocks from ‘essa bagel. That place is sheer heaven and their whitefish salad to die for! Being in NJ now I miss that place but make sure to stop there every time I am in Manhattan. The $60 parking ticket I got once for parking at a hydrant while running in was even worth it. NOTHING beats their everything bagel, slathered with whitefish, red onion and a thin slice of tomato. mmmmmmmmmmm

  30. Oh my! Whitefish on an everything bagel with tomato is my standard fare. I’m not Jewish but I think I was supposed to be! My dear friend’s mother is kind enough to invite me to all Jewish holidays at her house, and these days she always seems to find a way to bring a “nice Jewish boy” for me!

    A lifetime of blintz soufflee is my heaven…

  31. Oh my! Whitefish on an everything bagel with tomato is my standard fare. I’m not Jewish but I think I was supposed to be! My dear friend’s mother is kind enough to invite me to all Jewish holidays at her house, and these days she always seems to find a way to bring a “nice Jewish boy” for me!

    A lifetime of blintz soufflee is my heaven…

  32. Oh my! Whitefish on an everything bagel with tomato is my standard fare. I’m not Jewish but I think I was supposed to be! My dear friend’s mother is kind enough to invite me to all Jewish holidays at her house, and these days she always seems to find a way to bring a “nice Jewish boy” for me!

    A lifetime of blintz soufflee is my heaven…

  33. Talking about this – does anyone know how to make baked salmon salad? I can’t find a recipe anywhere and am a) dying to make it myself b) wondering how much fat my local kosher fish shop puts in it.

    It is also to die for.

    Whitefish salad is easy to make if you get any kind of smoked white fish. Or snoek for southern Africans.

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