By Rachel Ringler
Some see gefilte fish as a delicacy, others as something too disgusting to contemplate. Either way, it would probably appear on most people’s short list of classic Ashkenazi foods. For good reason – it’s been part of the Eastern European Jewish diet for hundreds of years.
The funny thing is that gefilte fish didn’t start out as a Jewish food. The first mention of gefuelten hechden (stuffed pike) comes from a 700-year-old, non-Jewish, German cookbook in which poached and mashed fish was flavored with herbs and seeds, stuffed back into the skin and roasted. It was a popular dish for Catholics during Lent, when eating meat was forbidden.
By the Middle Ages, that Catholic dish had migrated into the Jewish kitchen under the moniker gefilte (stuffed) fish. The rabbis considered fish to be the perfect food to kick off a Sabbath or holiday meal, since fish symbolize the coming of the Messiah and fertility. Plus, for the Jewish communities in Germany and Eastern Europe, it was easy to gain access to the fresh, sweet fish that is ground to make the dish. They were surrounded by well-stocked rivers, streams and lakes.
Gefilte fish even satisfied some religious commandments. It is prohibited to light a fire and begin cooking on the Sabbath and most holidays. Gefilte fish, happily, can be made in advance of the Sabbath day, chilled and eaten cold. There is also an injunction against picking bones from flesh on the Sabbath, as one might do when eating fish. With gefilte fish, you get the fish without the bones.
The downside of gefilte fish is that it takes a lot of time to prepare. That pain, though, is offset with economic gain: You need a relatively small amount of fish to feed many. Before the ground fish is cooked, it is mixed with seasonings, egg and either bread or matzah meal for binding and stretching a little further. Poor families might ask the fishmonger for just the fish head, skin and bones. The skin would be stuffed with bread and other fillers, while the bones and head would flavor the broth.
Given how time consuming it was to grind the fish and return it to the skin, a new kind of stuffed fish eventually emerged – one that wasn’t stuffed at all. The name remained; the method changed. Fish was shaped into patties and poached in a seasoned fish broth.
Over time, gefilte fish became synonymous with the shtetl and with Sabbath and holiday meals. There were many permutations to the dish, some of which signaled your ancestry. German Jews made it from pike. Polish Jews used carp and/or whitefish. British Jews used saltwater fish like cod or haddock. Jews from southern Poland and northern Ukraine served a sweetened fish, since sugar beets were plentiful there. Lithuanian gefilte fish was heavy on the pepper. The Jews of Russia and Belarus put beets in their poaching liquid for a pink-tinged fish and broth.
As the Eastern European Jews left their shtetls, they brought their cuisine with them. Many of us have heard stories of fresh carp swimming in bathtubs on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. They were purchased from the fishmonger early in the week and left to frolic in the tub before their home sacrifice. Thursday’s fresh carp became Friday night’s first course. And it heralded the start of the Passover seder, too.
Over time, gefilte fish lost some of its appeal. Did you really want a carp in your bathtub waiting for its end? Did you really want your home reeking of the malodorous scent of fish? For some, preparing it was a triumph of old school cuisine. Others were happy to move on.
And that’s when some enterprising Jewish businessmen moved in to fill the gefilte fish void.
Shortly before the Second World War, Sidney Leibner, the son of a fish store owner, began selling ready-made gefilte fish under the name Mother’s Fish Products – first canned, and later in glass bottles. Mother’s was joined by Manischewitz, Mrs. Adler’s, Rokeach and others. Old World met New in mass-produced jars of gefilte fish.
The bottled stuff was just palatable, but in the late 1970s, consumers were offered the chance to make their own fresh gefilte fish without the fuss, muss and odor: Frozen loaves of ready-made gefilte fish swam in to save the day. All you had to do was boil water with carrots, onions and celery, then pop in the frozen loaf.
As many of us have begun to look back on our roots, the food of the shtetl has made a comeback in recent years. Millennials Jeffrey Yoskowitz and Liz Alpern are leading the way with “their mission to reimagine Eastern European cuisine.” Their cookbook, “The Gefilte Manifesto,” is filled with Old World recipes including herbed gefilte fish, baked terrines of fish and poached gefilte “quenelles,” as well as the original deal: Old World Stuffed Gefilte Fish.
As author Stephen King wrote, “Sooner or later, everything old is new again.” As it is with life, so it is with gefilte fish.
This article originally appeared on The Nosher, 70 Faces Media’s Jewish food site.
Classic Gefilte Fish
Gefilte fish recipes abound. Here is a classic from the folks at Epicurious (www.epicurious.com).
7 to 7 1/2 pounds whole carp, whitefish, and pike, filleted and ground*
4 quarts cold water or to just cover
3 teaspoons salt or to taste
3 onions, peeled
4 medium carrots, peeled
2 tablespoons sugar or to taste
1 small parsnip, chopped (optional)
3 to 4 large eggs
Freshly ground pepper to taste 1/2 cup cold water (approximately)
1/3 cup matzah meal (approximately)
*Ask your fishmonger to grind the fish. Ask him to reserve the tails, fins, heads, and bones. Be sure he gives you the bones and trimmings. The more whitefish you add, the softer your gefilte fish will be.
Place the reserved bones, skin, and fish heads in a wide, very large saucepan with a cover. Add the water and 2 teaspoons of the salt and bring to a boil. Remove the foam that accumulates. Slice 1 onion in rounds and add along with 3 of the carrots. Add the sugar and bring to a boil. Cover and simmer for about 20 minutes while the fish mixture is being prepared.
Place the ground fish in a bowl. Finely chop or mince the remaining onions and carrot, and the parsnip. Add the chopped vegetables to the ground fish.
Add the eggs, one at a time, the remaining teaspoon of salt, pepper, and the cold water, and mix thoroughly. Stir in enough matzah meal to make a light, soft mixture into oval shapes, about 3 inches long. Take the last fish head and stuff the cavity with the ground fish mixture.
Remove from the saucepan the onions, skins, head, and bones and return the stock to a simmer. Gently place the fish patties in the simmering fish stock. Cover loosely and simmer for 20 to 30 minutes. Taste the liquid while the fish is cooking and add seasoning to taste. Shake the pot periodically so the fish patties won’t stick. When gefilte fish is cooked, remove from the water and allow to cool for at least 15 minutes.
Using a slotted spoon carefully remove the gefilte fish and arrange on a platter. Strain some of the stock over the fish, saving the rest in a bowl.
Slice the cooked carrots into rounds cut on a diagonal about 1/4 inch thick. Place a carrot round on top of each gefilte fish patty. Put the fish head in the center and decorate the eyes with carrots. Chill until ready to serve. Serve with a sprig of parsley and horseradish.