Ah, gefilte fish, the much-maligned dish of Ashkenazi tradition. When I’ve told people that I absolutely adore the dish – minced fish patties, often served cold in a gelled fish broth with carrots, sometimes with khrayn (horseradish and beets) – I have seen far more reactions of disgust than delight. “How could you like it?” I am asked. “It’s so gross?” I usually respond with one or another narrative about my love for fish, or that I just grew up with it, or that, well, I’ve had the not “jar” stuff. Yet in the Jewish America of today it seems that gefilte fish is sometimes forgotten as a “gross” dish. I want to tell you that it is actually amazing – and is the pink addition to our Pesach of Colors – the color coming from both the raw ground fish used to make it and the khrayn we add on top. Gefilte fish may seem “gross” – but I promise, it’s really not.
(Let us not forget though, that in the Jewish world a “gross” Ashkenazi dish will still be more respected than a “gross” Sephardi or Mizrahi dish. Please don’t use this erasure to say otherwise.)
The homemade patties are far better than the industrialized jars, whose contents I find leave a rather metallic aftertaste. Yet industry has also led us to sometimes forget gefilte fish’s pre-industrial origins as a dish to dress up the nearly-rotten fish many Jews bought for the Sabbath, lacking access to or money for fresher or more fish. The dish also allowed the fish to be consumed without picking apart the bones, an activity technically forbidden on Shabbat. The cooked, gelled, and sometimes-stuffed-into-skins fish mince dressed up the fact that, maybe, you shouldn’t eat this fish. The traditional fish has been, for centuries, freshwater fish like the carp or pike. Yet wealthier Jews or Jews who had access to fresher freshwater fish continued to eat the dish – alongside the nearly ubiquitous pickled fishes like herring that were on Ashkenazi tables, rich and poor, from at least the Late Middle Ages. (Nota bene: a herring series might be in the works.) This dish migrated with Ashkenazim wherever they went: to North America, to South Africa, even to Manchuria.
Gefilte fish is also the cause of one of the great culinary rivalries of Ashkenazim. “Traditionally,” Polish and Galitzianer Jews from today’s Poland, Ukraine, and Slovakia eat a sweeter gefilte fish, whereas the Litvaks of today’s Lithuania and Belarus eat a more savory, peppery version. This idea has been mapped both to dialects of Yiddish and to ideas of the “cold” Litvak and “warm-hearted” Galitzianer. The truth – though the myths are compelling – is simpler – and was wonderfully outlined by NPR’s The Salt last year. Sugar beets became a major industry in the 19th century in Poland, in which Jews were rather involved. In that part of Europe, sugar soon became cheap – and ended up in all sorts of dishes, gefilte fish among them. That sugar beet industry never made it to Lithuania.
I make a Lithuanian version here. But the Polish/Galitzianer version is not that hard, and is also pretty good. I’ve actually never made a sweet gefilte fish myself – only partook. See after the recipe, however, for a link to a good-looking Polish version from Gefilteria – perhaps the only artisanal hipster gefilte fish maker in the world! Of course, it’s based in Brooklyn.
Gefilte Fish – Lithuanian-Style
Makes 20-30 patties
1 ½ pounds filleted white fish (carp or pike are traditional, but trout really works), skinned and boned – keep the skin and bones
½ carrot, peeled
1/3 of a leek
1/3 of a medium onion
2 tsp salt
1 ½ tsp black pepper
1 cup matzah meal
Skin and bones from your white fish
1 ½ medium-sized carrots, peeled and cut into thin slices
2/3 of a leek, finely chopped
2/3 of a medium onion, finely chopped
1 tbsp salt
1 tbsp black pepper
1 tsp thyme
1 cup vegetable stock (or more water)
Grated horseradish (khrayn), preferably with beets, for serving*
- Set a medium stockpot filled half-way with water and the cup of stock on a high flame. Bring to a boil. Add the other stock ingredients, then simmer.
- Meanwhile, grind the carrot, leek, and onion in a food processor until they are finely grated – almost a purée. Empty out into a large mixing bowl.
- Now, chop the fish into chunks and place into the food processor. Mix until the fish is finely ground, even sort of puréed. Then, mix with the carrot mixture in the mixing bowl.
- Add the eggs and matzah meal and mix into the fish mixture with a spoon or your hands. You should have a thick, solid, and moist mixture.
- Pick up a chestnut-sized piece of the fish mixture and roll into a ball or patty with your hands. Set aside, and repeat for the rest of the mixture.
- Drop the patties into the simmering stock, and cook for 15-20 minutes. Occasionally push the floating patties back into the broth to prevent them from drying out.
- Remove the gefilte fish from the broth and set aside to cool.
- Meanwhile, strain the broth into a bowl, and cool until thickened or gelled. Keep the carrots to decorate the gefilte fish. You can decide what you do with the broth “leftovers.”
*I generally use a high-quality store-bought version – I eat enough khrayn on sandwiches where grating my own is too much effort – but this recipe for a traditional khrayn is both easy and delicious.
Gefilteria, which is run by Jeffrey Yoskowitz and Liz Alpern, provided a recipe to the Forward in 2012: http://forward.com/articles/162573/tale-of-two-gefiltes/