I Unpacked The Horrors Of Gefilte Fish Just In Time For Passover
Why is this night different from all other nights?
Because, tonight I'll get to kibitz with family and friends at the Passover seder, watch my kid search for his first afikomen and eat uncomfortable amounts of homemade brisket, matzo ball soup and this mind-blowing chocolate-covered coconut cake (I've consumed an entire one in a single sitting). I'll also be expected to eat what is, basically, kosher cat food — aka gefilte fish.
For those who have never had the stuff, gefilte fish is, in its most basic form, a fish ball. It's traditionally made from whitefish and it's not easy to prepare, so many Jews who eat it, buy it pre-made in jars.
Come dinner time, my aunts will dutifully make the rounds, offering up these pungent, greyish fish torpedoes, which jiggle as they're pulled from their jelly and plopped down, waiting to be eaten with horseradish and matzo.
One or two cousins will claim to enjoy it. I assume this is part of our long Jewish obligation to suffer, much like our ancestors did when they fled Egypt thousands of years ago. I've never understood the appeal. But gefilte fish has been around for generations and we're still eating the stuff, so I figured, maybe I'm missing something.
When it comes to food, context counts for a lot. I know nothing about the history of gefilte fish or why we eat it. All I know is that it had only ever shown up on my dinner plate pulled from a cold jar.
I wouldn't eat a cheeseburger from a can, why would I do it with with gefilte fish?
Where'd It Come From?
The basic gefilte fish recipe calls for mashing up whitefish, mixing it with onions, eggs, salt and matzo meal, forming it into quenelles and poaching it in broth.
Which doesn't sound so bad. But then there's the stuff in the jar.
"I remember growing up having Passover seder with little rounds of Manischewitz gefilte fish and thought it was horrible," says Joan Nathan, author of King Solmon's Table: A Culinary Expedition of Jewish Cooking from Around the World. "And then I got married into an Eastern European Jewish family where we always had homemade gefilte fish. And I have to tell you, I love it."
Nathan, the queen of home cooked Jewish food, tells me that gefilte fish wasn't always bland and canned. It likely has roots in the Spain and possibly the Middle East. Jews probably used grouper, sea bass and other species found in those areas. Spices like coriander and ginger also probably made their way into the mix.
As Jews fled to Eastern Europe during the Spanish Inquisition, the dish evolved, Nathan says. It lost many of its spices and people began making it with commonly found whitefish, pike and carp. Horseradish also made its presence known, a reflection of the cuisine in the region.
"Jewish food is based on regionality and, of course, on the guidelines of Kashrut," Nathan says.
By kashrut she means kosher laws. The dictum that observant Jews shouldn't work on the sabbath also comes into play.
"The whole concept of a fish ball is, number one, you don't have to work at eating it," she says. "You know, this whole concept of borer, which would be work, or picking. You don't want to do that on the sabbath."
Traditionally, the fish was deboned, wrapped in its own skin, poached in a light fish broth and put aside for later. Since you're not allowed to cook on the sabbath, that meant eating it cold. Mixing in matzo meal or bread crumbs helped stretch it out.
By the time the technology for jarred and canned food rolled around during World War I, people no longer had to make it themselves.
"Every immigrant to every society, on the one hand, wants to hang on to the foods of the past. But they also want to adapt, to the society in which they're living," Nathan says.
As Jews from Eastern Europe established themselves in the United States in the early 1900s, they found a market for their food.
Is Homemade Better?
"If you make it, there's no question it tastes better," Nathan says.
I wasn't convinced. I remain traumatized by decades of jarred gefilte fish. But I decided to take her up on the challenge.
I tried to find restaurants that make gefilte fish here in Los Angeles. It was surprisingly hard. Many of the most famous delis in the city don't make their own. When I questioned Jews in the area, I was often asked, "Why would you want that stuff anyway?"
I'm sure I'm missing some spots (please tweet at me to let me know), but two places stepped up.
The first was Wexler's Deli, which told me that they make theirs out of whitefish. It's studded with bits of carrots and dill — and it's phenomenal. It tastes delicate and vegetal, a little like whitefish salad and not overly fishy. I could eat an entire plate.
Then there was the recently opened Eleven City Los Angeles.
Owner Bradley Rubin's gefilte recipe is a trip. Passed down from his bubbie, who survived the Holocaust, it's heavily peppered but fluffy and light and wrapped in onion skin. Also phenomenal.
I can't believe it has taken me more than three decades to taste real gefilte fish. My whole life, I've been missing out.
I also have a better understanding of the dish's history, what it says about the Jewish people, our traditions and our adaptability as we've been booted from place to place.
"When I first made gefilte fish, I made it with my mother in law, and her mother had died in the Holocaust," Nathan says. "So my mother in law used to make the fish and then she'd sigh. I always knew what that sigh was as she put carrots in the eyes for the fish, and raisins in for the mouth of the fish. And when she sighed, she thought about her mother dying in a concentration camp. Just for that, I like to do it every year."
Some cooks, rather than sticking to tradition, are updating Ashkenazi food to make it more palatable to a modern audience. In 2016, self-described "culinary lab" Gefilteria released The Gefilte Manifesto: New Recipes for Old World Jewish Foods, a book that delivers exactly what it promises — modern takes on classic fare. I'm glad somebody is keeping history alive and showing us that even the throwaway mashed fish parts can be delicious.
If you're up the challenge and want to make your own gefilte fish, Nathan has graciously allowed us reprint a recipe from, Joan Nathan's Jewish Holiday Cookbook.
ZAMOSC GEFILTE FISH
"Make your fish Lithuanian or Polish, with sugar or without, but just remember—it's the carrots and horseradish that really count!" she writes. "I have been making this recipe since the mid-1970s. The only difference is that I cook the fish for twenty minutes. My mother-in-law cooked it for two hours!"
- 4 stalks celery, cut in 4-inch slices
- 3 onions, sliced*
- 6 carrots, sliced on the bias
- 8 cups water, or enough to cover bones with 1 inch to spare (use less rather than more)
- Bones of fish (and heads, if desired)
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 1/2 tablespoon freshly ground pepper
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 3 pounds carp (meat)
- 1 1/2 pounds whitefish, pickerel, or rockfish (meat)
- 1 1/2 pounds yellow pike or buffel (meat)
- 6 onions*
- 2 tablespoons salt, or to taste"
- 6 eggs
- 3 tablespoons sugar
- 1/2 -1 cup matzah meal
- 3/4 cup water
- 1 teaspoon almond extract or ¼ cup ground almonds (optional)
- 1 1/4 teaspoons pepper
- Horseradish (bottled or fresh)
*If desired, the onion skins can be reserved and added later to the stock to flavor and darken it.
Note: The ratio of fish can be adjusted according to taste and availability. The less carp and the more whitefish, the more delicate the flavor and the lighter the dish. Each fish market will have its own suggestions for the most flavorful and economical mix. Today most markets will grind the fish for you and give you the heads, bones, and skins in a separate package.
Place all the stock ingredients in a large kettle with a cover. Bring to a boil, then partially cover and reduce the heat to a simmer. While waiting for the pot to boil, begin preparing the fish.
In a wooden bowl, add to the ground-up fish all the other ingredients listed under Fish, carefully chopping very fine and blending. You can also use the grinder on a mixer. Wet your hands and form the fish into fat, oval-shaped patties, carefully sliding each into the simmering stock.
Simmer over a low flame slowly for 20 to 30 minutes or for 2 hours. Allow to cool in the pot and carefully remove all the patties, placing them on a platter. After the fish has been removed, strain off the cooking liquid. This stock should then jell when chilled; if it does not, simply add a package of unflavored gelatin, following instructions on the package.
Serve the chilled gefilte fish with the jellied fish stock, horseradish, and of course the carrots."