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I always wondered about this seemingly static rule:

Never add cheese (especially, but not limited to parmigiano reggiano) to a dish with fish.

Italians would never, ever add parmigiano reggiano to a pasta with fish. But they have many other fixed views on food (e.g. sweet and savoury is a no-no, which is allowed at least in Austria and Japan).

I obliged until now, but I wonder where this rule comes from. To be honest, I would never add cheese to frutti di mare, but I'm open to trying other combinations. Is there some evidence that the two ingredients don't mix well? I hear there are some exceptions: Tuna with parmigiano reggiano is okay, but I only tried that as a salad and it was good. Also, I once saw a recipe of fish with mascarpone.

Did you ever have a professional cook serving you fish with cheese?

Please, I'm not interested in your personal opinion, but I'm trying to understand the rule and the exceptions.

EDIT:

Status update: Thanks for the brainstorming so far. I'm collecting the intermediate results:

  • Most importantly: It seems to be a regional thing (w/ Italy at its heart)
  • @Walter, @TFD and @Joe all agree on tuna as the prime counter example.
  • However, they disagree on the reason: We have @TFD's opinion, that tuna is strong and thus is not outplayed by strong cheese and @Walter's italo-centric opinion, that tuna is a particularly 'unfishy' fish.
  • @Carmi mentions umami as one/the possible reason.
  • @Todd has entered the discussion and disputes the highest voted answer: The umami claim by @Carmi. I'm delighted, because I'm still cautions about umami.

  • If you provide further examples, please include a detailed descriptions and a reason why you think the particular combination is a "allowed".

I would be extremely interested in opinions that favour the motion/rule. Is there anybody willing to take a stance and (maybe even) explain the origin?

And what about seafood with cheese? Is it unthinkable?

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I also wonder where this rule comes from. Could you give us some idea of where you heard it from? It's certainly the first time I've ever heard of it. –  Aaronut Apr 28 '11 at 13:51
    
well, I grew up with it. Now I'm living in Italy where I'm even more exposed to it. –  Sebastian Apr 28 '11 at 19:21
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"No cheese with fish" is one of the unwritten Italian rules; being Italian, I can report it is true. –  kiamlaluno Apr 28 '11 at 20:33
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No, please, we don't need this question to become a compendium of examples (AKA recipes) that happen to include fish and cheese - any recipe search can do that. If this is a regional convention then it would make for far more interesting reading to hear about its origins, the reasons (if any) why it came to be, and what exceptions are known or implied - as several of the answerers have been doing, to various degrees. –  Aaronut Apr 28 '11 at 21:32
    
modified my post in order to avoid the growth of recipe collection, thx @Aeronut –  Sebastian Apr 29 '11 at 11:28

9 Answers 9

up vote 6 down vote accepted

Disagree with the umami analysis from @Carmi, even if it was a good attempt. You have some basic facts wrong though.

  • Cooked tomato sauce is high in umami, and is often combined with mushrooms, however, a sauce with mushrooms would not take parmigiano (also extremely high in umami)
  • Mozarella is high in umami, like most fresh young cheeses. So is tuna.
  • Caesar salad has both anchovies and parmigiano (both high in umami).

But you are sort of on the right track. Baked fish in Italy is not strong in flavor. It's delicate and calls for the following: fresh lemon. That's it. Maybe some fresh parsley. Usually cooked with no herbs and served with no sauce. The fish should be extremely fresh and appreciated for it's delicate flavor. Something like parmigiano would easily overpower the taste of the fresh fish and by putting it on fish you are telling the cook "this is fish gone bad and I need to cover the taste with something". Or if it was served that way, maybe better to avoid it because what is the cook trying to hide? While there I never encountered a fish dish served with cheese.

Being a curious foodie and having lived in Italy for 5 years, I can also add the following:

  • There are a LOT of rules that might seem strange to an outsider. No cappuccino after 10am. You don't mix salty and sweet in the same dish, or even during the same course. Beer with pizza, not wine. You would never drink coffee before or during desert, it's served after.
  • While I was there I did a lot of thinking about the basis of some of these rules and concluded it's usually either 1) health, 2) taste, or 3) regional cultural rules.
  • I asked the fish and cheese question a few times. The answer was always "That's gross, you just don't put cheese on fish". My guess is this one falls under 2 and 3.

The health angle from @Walter I think has a lot of validity in general. Italians often complain of their liver hurting after eating especially 'heavy' meals. Heavy meaning something very specific in Italian: difficult to digest. So a fresh salad with too much raw garlic could be considered heavy because garlic sometimes causes indigestion. A huge chunk of parmigiano is not considered heavy because parmigiano is very digestable. My guess is some of the rules come out of the particulars of the Italian digestive system. Much like you will not find many Asians joining me when I chug my glass of milk.

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"Please, I'm not interested in your personal opinion, but I'm trying to understand the rule and the exceptions."

The "rule" probably came into existence because of a lot of peoples' personal opinions that the combination doesn't yield something that tastes good :)

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It might not even be a 'tastes good' thing ... it might be frugal thing (don't waste good cheese on something that tastes good without it (or is already potentially salty); or don't mask the flavor of a great fish) –  Joe Apr 28 '11 at 11:35

Fish and cheese is fine. There are plenty of recipes that use these two ingredients together e.g. fish taco (cotija cheese and fried snapper in a tortilla), tuna pie (tuna casserole topped with rich cheese sauce baked in a pie crust)

The problem is that many fish have very delicate flavours, and since they are often served hot the cheese tends to melt and then have an overbearing flavour and smell

Strong flavoured oily fish (salmon, tuna) would more likely match with cheese, especially with strong cheeses such as parmesan

Having said that, I suspect any baked or poached fish fillet tastes great with a blue cheese sauce

from Caribbean Recipes

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great answer already @TFD. I do not understand all aspects though and hope you can clarify. You're saying that: 1. delicate (weakly characteristic?) fish is outplayed by strong cheese, 2. Strongly flavoured (do you mean intrinsically very tasty/characteristic?) fish matches well with strong cheese and 3. you assume most fish taste good with blue cheese sauce. Do you consider blue cheese a strong or weak cheese? Can you rate the examples given under your own categories? thanks! –  Sebastian Apr 28 '11 at 19:59
    
1. Yes. 2. Strong/oily fish goes well with any strong or mild cheese. Weak fish generally not such a great candidate for cheese. 3. Blue cheese is not a normal cheese flavour, and pairs well regardless of fish type. Of course less people like blue cheese than cheese in general. Examples are very subjective as fish names and species vary widely around the word. Our local snapper is delicate, but oily enough to pair out a tasty cheese. Our local salmon and yellow fin tuna are also very strong –  TFD Apr 28 '11 at 22:40

It's not a personal thing, it's a regional Italian thing. And it's even something like keeping kosher where you don't mix meat and dairy. (although, I'm not sure if fish counts as 'meat' under those rules).

Just the other day I was watching David Rocco's Dulce Vita on Cooking Channel, and he specifically showed someone's recipe that had shrimp and parmesean in it; he even commented on the no mixing fish and cheese 'rule', but mentioned that there were lots of exceptions to the 'rule'.

Personally, my mom's Italian-American, and although she was always concious of the no fish and cheese thing when visiting Italy to not offend people, growing up, we'd have tuna boats topped with cheddar cheese; a touch of parmesean or percorina romano (even more strongly flavored than parmesean) on a shrimp risotto, etc.

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FYI, fish does not count as 'meat' under those rules. –  Aaronut Apr 28 '11 at 13:52
    
+1 for the reference to a professional (David Rocco), although I don't know him and also the story of your mum. –  Sebastian Apr 28 '11 at 19:35
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For keeping kosher, fish only counts as meat for Jews from Sephardi backgrounds. (Generally, the current or formerly Islamic countries, such as Spain, northern Africa, and the Middle East). Fish doesn't count as meat in Ashkenazi Jewish culture (Eastern Europe). –  Martha F. May 1 '11 at 2:30

It is definitely a regional rule. Growing up in NE Brazil, I often had a typical fish dish called Peixe a Delicia - fish cooked in a cheese sauce with plantains.

Edit: I think the fish most commonly used is snapper or halibut, and mostly mozzarella cheese.

enter image description here

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Thanks for this example, could you please add: Is this typical fish of strong flavour (compared to tuna)? What about the cheese? Is it strong as pecorino or more like mozzarella? Nice picture! –  Sebastian Apr 28 '11 at 19:39

I have never found in food science texts that dairy and fish do not go together for health or other reasons. On the other hand, the rule is a pretty strong on in Italian cuisine. You can find popular exceptions to it, for example there are countless salads served in Italian cafès (in Italy, I mean) that feature tuna fish (always from a can) and mozzarella. An Italian like me might tell you that canned tuna fish is the least fishy of fishes in the Italian worldview: people who don't eat any other fish will eat tuna from a can. In the same vein, mozzarella is barely cheese - no sharp, cheesy taste at all.

But to sum it up, I think that it is simply a widespread habit that then you can codify into a rule to use when generating new Italian dishes.

Another Italian no-no is fish and meat combinations, with few expections - vitello tonnato comes to mind.

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+1 for considering health aspects @Walter, I didn't even think about that! Secondly thanks for providing some regional expert opinion. –  Sebastian Apr 28 '11 at 19:32
    
your answer makes most sense to me until now. Mozzarella is not very cheesy, but I never saw a fish dish accompanied by mozzarella. Can you name one? But I'm curious: tuna is not very fishy? –  Sebastian Apr 28 '11 at 20:09
    
The /tuna not very fishy thing/ is just a shot in the dark :) –  Walter A. Aprile Jul 4 '11 at 21:35

It's an umami thing. Both the very "fishy" fishes and the very "cheesy" cheeses, both of which are favoured in Italy, are very umami in flavour. Parmesan and anchovies are two very typical sources of umami in many dishes. It's possible that combining the two would make something that is just too umami, and you get that MSG overdone flavour.

Generally, a good cook will try to balance flavours, perhaps to let one stand out over the others, but not to overdo it, which a combination of fish and cheese would do.

That's probably why tuna and mozzarela is fine, as they are relatively not very umami.

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Interesting! And this provides another example that supports strong-fish-with-weak-cheese is okay: pizza napoletana contains anchovies and mozzarella. –  Sebastian Apr 29 '11 at 6:52
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I did a little more research: Umami taste is also very dominant in mushrooms or ripe tomatoes. Isn't that a contradiction? Tomatoes and parmesan is the classical combination?! I'm confused. –  Sebastian Apr 29 '11 at 11:13
    
@Sebastian: With tomatoes, you generally need to get rid of the water to get a really umami flavour. If it's a tomato sauce, the parmesan will be fine as long as you don't overdo it. You'll rarely see sundried tomatoes or tomato paste with parmesan. As for the mushrooms, they are usually cooked in oil or butter and cream, not in tomato sauce. –  Carmi Apr 29 '11 at 12:49
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Well, as I'm unfamiliar with the concept, I think it's fair to ask for further references. If I had as much reputation as @Aaronut, I wouldn't bother. However, I think there is a subtle difference between umami and salt: Salt is something I grew up with tasting, adding and evaluating. It's also in my kitchen cabinet. Umami is not (it's not a Japanese kitchen :] ). Oh and if it is some kind of metric: Umami is unknown to my spell checker! :P –  Sebastian Apr 30 '11 at 15:49
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@Sebastian: I actually tried to write a description of umami that is concise enough for a comment and yet also explains why no European language has a word for it. I can't do it though, and I think it's an interesting enough topic to have its own question. If you ask it as an independent question, I'll be happy to answer it, as will many of the others here. –  Carmi Apr 30 '11 at 16:23

I think that historically, at least in Italy, it is due to the fact that the majority of the regions facing the sea weren't big cheese producers on the first place, hence the fact that cheese wasn't present in their recipes. This might eventually have become a custom, without any particular reason, besides the original lack of the ingredient on the first place.

If you think about it, if you were a fisherman you probably didn't have much time for keeping a herd of cows for milk and dairy products, and buying it wasn't probably all that feasible (and it was expensive, too). This probably led to the search for substitutes such as breadcrumbs, which are sometimes referred to as "poor men's Parmesan".

Italians are generally very tied to their traditions, so the fact that Italians tell you that fish and cheese is a big no-no probably doesn't have a very good reason to exist, apart from the fact that so it was told by their parents, and their parents' parents and so on.

New recipes with fish and cheese do exist, as old ones that were forgotten are rediscovered (I counted about 10 recipes out of 50 with Parmesan and some other sort of fish in my "Artusi" cookbook), it might just take a while to get accustomed.

I remember my aunt telling me how disgusted she was in the early '60s of seeing "tortellini with cream" in a London's restaurant. Now they are widespread, and nobody is complaining anymore, even though at the time it was considered a "heresy". It happened with that. It is happening with fish and cheese. It will change, eventually.

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There was some evidence I saw years ago that the "no cheese with fish" rule originated among Italian Americans that observed a convention and promoted it as a rule, and the historical accident that led to this was reverse-imported back to Italy in an era of trying to define "correct" Italian cuisine. I forgot where I read this account, but it seemed more convincing than any arguments based on natural flavor affinities. –  JasonTrue Mar 27 '13 at 18:43

A rule without a reason? The only things that should ever preclude two food items from being eaten together is taste (does it taste bad?) or danger (will it make you sick?). My mother was born in Italy, came from a long line of amazing cooks, and we grew up putting cheese on all types of pasta dishes, including speghetti with clam sauce and fruiti de mare. What about seafood fettuccini alfredo or lobster mac n cheese? This is hogwash and whoever created this ridiculous rule should apologize to the entire food industry!

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