The tiny fish that founded St Petersburg

They may swim into town only once a year, but the koryushka fish is more than just a strangely scented St Petersburg delicacy – it may be the reason the city survived World War Two.

In St Petersburg, there is one unmistakable sign that spring has sprung: the smell of cucumber-scented fish wafting through the air. Koryushka, a small but hearty fish, are more than just an unusually scented local delicacy – they were integral to St Petersburg’s survival during one of the longest and most destructive military blockades in history. 

Often referred to by its English name, “smelt”, these flat, slightly translucent fish spend most of their lives in salt water off the coast of St Petersburg. When the waters warm and the koryushka are fat with roe, they spawn at the head of the Neva River, which runs through the city. Because koryushka is only fished at night between mid-April and mid-May, locals and visitors have only about a month to enjoy them.

According to local legend, koryushka had a hand in Peter the Great’s decision to establish St Petersburg in its present location in 1703. Allegedly, he believed that founding the city near a large concentration of koryushka would reduce the risk of residents starving. In fact, later, during the Siege of Leningrad in World War Two, koryushka was one of the only available food sources in the city during the 872-day Nazi blockade.

While it is traditionally fried and served with potatoes and vegetables, koryushka can also be eaten fresh, canned, smoked, dried, salted or pickled. The fish taste a bit like salmon and range in colour from brownish-green to silver with a bluish tint.

The fish became a pricier delicacy in the post-Soviet era as the koryushka population waned from overfishing and changes in their migratory patterns. In 2002, St Petersburg reestablished the Koryushka Festival, an event Peter the Great had initiated more than 300 years earlier. Now every May, residents gather again to celebrate the tiny fish’s arrival with music, festivities and, of course, lots of koryushka.

(Video by Irina Sedunova, text by Emily Cavanagh)

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