What Is Feast of the Seven Fishes? And How to Prepare It for Christmas Eve Dinner
Here's a helpful plan for a seven-course fish-laden menu.
By Fraya Berg for Food Network Kitchen
Fraya is a chef and a contributing writer at Food Network.
In Southern Italy, celebrating Christmas Eve with a feast of seven fish dishes is a much-loved, age-old tradition. It's almost always a family affair, with generations of cooks in the kitchen and favorite foods that return year after year. But you don't have to be Italian to throw your own holiday seafood feast, and you don't have to stick with traditional recipes, either. Here, everything you need to know about the holiday, including its history and how to throw your very own party – choose from our menu of recipes.
What Is Feast of the Seven Fishes?
The Feast of the Seven Fishes is an Italian-American Christmas Eve celebration that brings families together the same way Thanksgiving does with traditions that span generations, decades and oceans. Known in Italy as La Viglia, which translates to The Eve, as in December 24th, Christmas Eve, The Feast of the Seven Fishes isn’t a religious celebration (unless your religion is worshipping at the altar of amazing food). It really is just a big fish-forward holiday meal that traces its roots back to Italy. There isn’t a set menu but there are a few dishes most families include, and we’ve got lots of info here that will help you plan a Feast of the Seven Fishes that fits your lifestyle (and the size of your kitchen).
The History of the Feast of the Seven Fishes
Why do Italian Americans celebrate Christmas Eve with a feast like no other? Politics, poverty and family traditions all play into the tradition. Before 1861, the geographic area that’s now Italy was a group of regions, each with its own government. Before and after the unification, the southern regions were the poorest areas in the country, and fish was a plentiful food resource. The area became so poverty-stricken millions of people left and immigrated to the U.S. bringing their food traditions with them. The tradition of eating fish on Christmas Eve comes from the Roman Catholic practice of not eating dairy or meat on the eve of some holidays, including Christmas. And the number seven is a symbol that’s repeated many times throughout the Bible – and in Catholicism, there are seven sacraments and deadly sins. Come the 1900s, all these ideas came together into the Feast of the Seven Fishes. The name itself, and the number of dishes is completely an Italian American invention.
How to Cook the Feast of the Seven Fishes for Christmas Eve Dinner
The strictest adherents to the seven-fishes tradition will tell you that indeed there should be seven fish on the dinner table, but for the sake of simplicity, consider any and all seafood, including shellfish, to count toward your final fish tally. The key to committing to cook seven different kinds of seafood is spreading out the dishes throughout the meal; instead of preparing seven whole fish for what would be an excessively large main dish spread, offer perhaps three small appetizers, a soup, pasta, then entrée plus a side salad, each with seafood as the focus.
Tips for Shopping and Prepping
Buying the fish:
- Buy the freshest seafood possible from a reputable fish monger. Order what you need a week in advance because it’s a busy time of the year.
- It’s okay to serve small “tasting-size” portions of each dish. With this in mind, assume each recipe you make will serve 1 1/2 times as many people as it says: a recipe for 4 will serve 6; a recipe for 6 will serve 9; a recipe for 8 will serve 12.
- Plan for two or three courses to be cold or room temperature: there aren’t enough burners on the stove for seven.
- You don’t need a ton of side dishes; many of the fish dishes have one built in.
Setting up for the feast
- Consider how many plates you own: we love serving each dish as a separate course, but only when we have enough dishes to carry it off. Three dishes served on one plate is fine.
- Decorations are traditionally Christmas-inspired, given that this feast is thrown on Christmas Eve.
Feast of the Seven Fishes Menu
Here, a suggested way to structure your feast. There’s no one “right” way to celebrate it, every Italian American does it slightly differently, but this is a good place to start. Feel free to mix and match recipes as you please. For even more recipes, check out our gallery of seafood recipes to add to your Feast of the Seven Fishes menu.
1: First Course: Snacks and Appetizers
Baked stuffed clams, baked and raw oysters and shrimp cocktail are easy to start with before sitting down to plated food at the table.
We think a platter of freshly cooked and chilled shrimp is about as festive as it gets. Make the cocktail sauce a day or two before your party.
Tyler Florenceâs Crab Dip with Garlic Saltines and Roasted Cherry Tomatoes for THANKSGIVING/BAKING/WEEKEND COOKING, as seen on Tylerâs Ultimate, Ultimate Summer Seafood.,Tyler Florence’s Crab Dip with Garlic Saltines and Roasted Cherry Tomatoes for THANKSGIVING/BAKING/WEEKEND COOKING, as seen on Tyler’s Ultimate, Ultimate Summer Seafood.
Renee Comet, 2015, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved.
If it’s a party, there has to be dip. This crab rendition is perfection.
Have the fishmonger shuck the clams for you but be sure they give you the shells. You can serve the clams on a bed of salt to keep them from tipping over.
You don’t need a grill to make these oysters: a 500 degree F oven will do the trick.
Are these warm scallops baked with prosciutto and served on a bed of arugula a shellfish dish, an appetizer or a salad? They’re so yummy no one will care how you label them.
2: Second Course: Greens and Seafood Salad
Seafood in a salad with traditional Italian greens like endives, arugula and radicchio are a good idea between two heavier courses, and the red and green colors are holiday appropriate.
Giada knows a thing or two about Italian entertaining; this festive red and green salad filled with grilled scallops and squid not only looks elegant but also will have people coming back for seconds.
Leave it to Ina to put together this salad that's at once impressive but also easy.
3: Third Course: Hearty Seafood Stew
A seafood stew like cacciucco (true Italian cioppino) is classic, but you can get a few different fish in one bowl: bragging rights at the water cooler in January: “We had 13 fishes at our feast”.
Talk about delicious and easy! Make the tomato base for cioppino up to a month ahead of your Christmas Eve Feast of the Seven Fishes and freeze it. Then all you need to do is add the seafood and cook right before you’re ready to eat. If you add a few chunks of a sturdy white fish like halibut, you’ve got seven fishes in one pot.
Here, a steaming cauldron of fish and seafood stew that’s white, not red. That’s why it’s called brodetto, which translate to light broth: it’s just white wine and the juices of the clams.
4: Fourth Course: The Pasta Course
Most Feast of the Seven Fishes dinners have one thing in common: a pasta dish.
This pasta involves seven fish: clams, mussels, halibut, shrimp, anchovy, calamari and scallops.
Just a few ingredients come together quickly to make this simple and classic white clam pasta. Perfect for
5: Fifth Course: Meaty Fish Entrees
It’s nice to have a whole fish, head and tail included, to signify abundance. Fried fish can also be part of your main course: make an oven-fried fish if you don’t want to deep fry, or think about a shallow fry like crab cakes.
Bringing a whole baked fish to the table is like bringing out the turkey on Thanksgiving: it’ll elicit lots of oohs and aahs. You don’t need to tell anyone how easy it was, especially since you made the relish earlier in the week.
Nearly 500 people have rated our baked salmon and it has 5 stars: that’s why we call it the best. For your feast, cut the pieces in half before baking since you’ll have 6 other dishes to go with it.
Make the tapenade 2 days ahead, and count on the 2-pound piece of halibut serving six to eight people.
Here, spicy fried shrimp that are an almost perfect copy of the Bang Bang Shrimp from Bonefish Grill. They’re not Italian, but they sure are a hit across the U.S.
We love a pan-fried fish, and this cod is no exception. Slaw is great when you’re serving this any other night, but for Christmas eve you might want to skip it.
6: Sixth Course: A Palate Cleanser
If you want to seriously up the ante on your feast, serve a small palate cleanser between your dinner and dessert courses to help cut through all the rich dishes you’ve been serving.
Serve Giada's easy frozen dessert recipe in tiny little spoons so each guest takes a single tart-sweet bite.
7: Seventh Course: Dessert
Dessert is probably the best course for a guest to bring: if they’re late, dinner won’t be held up, and it probably won’t require reheating in the oven. Many people simply serve Italian Christmas cookies, as there are plenty to go around at these time of year.
You absolutely can’t go wrong with Tiramisu when you’re celebrating, and you’ll love the fact that you can make it the day before you serve it.
The Feast of the Seven Fishes is known for the fried food on the menu. These zeppole are made from store-bought pizza dough: how easy is that?