One of my earliest and most sensually vivid food memories is of being in my grandmother’s kitchen as she made gefilte fish. Weeks before the dish was to be made for Passover, my grandmother and mother would discuss the preparations, including my grandmother’s request that my mother call the butcher to reserve the whitefish. “You don’t want them to sell out,” my grandmother told her. So much planning was involved in its creation, so much care taken in crafting the dish, that in my young mind, gefilte fish achieved luxury food status. I remember thinking that if this much attention was put into this one food, then it must be special. And special it is.
As a chef, I meet diners with many food aversions, dislikes, and even taboos, which stem from various factors, such as deeply ingrained cultural assertions and associations, religious decrees, and missed or unenjoyable personal experiences with a given food or ingredient. If I were to pick a food or ingredient that people seem most intimidated by, either in their kitchens or on their plates, it would be seafood, specifically fish. Many people have told me that they feel fish is difficult to cook properly or that they don’t enjoy “fishy” tasting fish. If I narrow down the type of fish that people I’ve encountered dislike or avert from most, I’d say gefilte fish takes the cake. That’s a shame.
I make and serve a lot of gefilte fish. I’m often asked what kind of a fish a gefilte fish is, and I typically chuckle as I explain that it’s not a type of fish but a preparation. The word “gefilte” translates from Yiddish, the language of Eastern European Jews, to English as “stuffed.” Simply put, gefilte fish is a stuffed fish.
Early versions of gefilte fish emerged due to religious edicts governing what sorts of activities Jews were permitted or not permitted to conduct on Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest. During the sabbath, anything deemed to be work is forbidden. This includes laboring over a stove and even the act of cutting one’s food or removing bones from a piece of meat or fish. In response, Jewish people throughout Eastern Europe created a fish dish that could be prepared on a Friday afternoon, before the Sabbath started, then chilled overnight and served cold the next day for lunch.
Traditionally, a carp was skinned in a manner that kept the head and tail fins attached with the skin in one piece, akin to a sheet of paper. The bones went into the stock pot and the chopped flesh was mixed with ground matzo, eggs, black pepper, onion, sometimes various root vegetables, and even sugar, before being stuffed back into the skin. Tied up to look like a whole fish again, it was poached in the stock. This popularity of this dish amongst Jews relates to the laws of kashrut, which govern the diets of observant Jews who adhere to kosher. The laws of kashrut state that meat and dairy should not be mixed or consumed together, so having a neutral food, so to speak, that could be paired in either direction was a way to allow for a more balanced meal. Fish is considered parve (neutral) and can be served with either a dairy meal or a meat-based meal.
The preparation of gefilte fish has changed over time. What started as a laborious and artistic process of skinning, chopping, mixing, stuffing and tying the fish back together evolved into simply shaping the flesh into something akin to a meatball, which was then poached. Other traditions emerged as Jews were driven from Eastern Europe due to anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. They used different fish, and changed the cooking method and how the fish was served. In England, for example, the mixture of ground fish is seared in a skillet much like a sausage patty would be. An Internet search for gefilte fish recipes yields modern dishes made from salmon or other fish. Despite this evolution over time and across continents, gefilte fish is still served with plenty of chrain, a potent mix of fresh grated horseradish and beets.
Eventually, as happens with many different foods, someone figured out how to produce gefilte fish commercially, and it became an industrial commodity. I surmise that the transition took the dish from nostalgically beloved to a thing of dread. To be totally frank, I find canned or jarred gefilte fish repulsive, and I’m not against canned foods—I actually enjoy Spam from time to time. But in my mind, the translation from Bubbie’s kitchen to the large-scale factory has ruined the joy of gefilte fish.
Out of the Bathtub
In many families, there is quite a bit of ceremony attached to making gefilte fish. Countless people have told me stories about their bubbies bringing home a carp midweek and keeping it alive in the bathtub for a few days to purge its sometimes muddy and silty taste before killing it to make gefilte fish. My grandmother experienced this as a child when she started making gefilte fish for our family, a tradition passed down through her mother and grandmothers. She eschewed a live carp and instead switched to filleted, and, in her later years, already ground whitefish and walleye.
My grandmother shared with me her secrets for the perfect gefilte fish, but I also learned from watching. She picked up fish fillets and a fish carcass from the kosher butcher, and once home layered onion and carrots in a pot with the fish carcass to make the stock. Adding peeled and grated onions to the fillets, she mixed them in a wooden bowl, which had been handed down for a few generations for the sole purpose of making gefilte fish. She used a special knife resembling a mezzaluna but with a solid curved wooden handle to mince and chop the fish into a coarse paste.
The chopped fish was seasoned with salt and mixed with egg, matzo meal, and a copious amount of ground black pepper. Tasting the mixture was always encouraged, and inevitably my grandmother would declare the need for a little more grated onion and a lot more black pepper. Keeping our hands moist— since raw gefilte fish is very sticky—we balled up the mixture and cooked the balls in the simmering stock., then removed them along with the carrots to cool so that they could be served at the Passover Seder.
Every time that I made the gefilte fish with my grandmother, I fervently attempted to transpose her actions and measurements onto paper. Alas, from year to year the amounts of various ingredients would change, and I eventually learned that her recipe is best made via sensory memory. I have since refined it and even added my own personal touch as I came to realize that gefilte fish is fundamentally like the meat-based French style pâtés I’m enamored with. Just like my ancestors, I use carp.
Seize the Carp, Save the Lakes
Often called a trash fish, carp has gotten a bad rap, which I feel is ignominious and should be rethought by home and professional cooks alike. When it comes to dollars and cents, you can’t find a fish that is more inexpensive. I’ve never seen it retail for much more than $2 a pound, and often find it at half that price.
But more important, consider the ecological disaster threatening the Great Lakes as numerous invasive species, (lumped together and collectively referred to as Asian carp) wreak havoc on the delicate balance of the lakes, one of our most cherished and precious natural resources. These fish will eventually outcompete and destroy the native stocks of fish, but by the simple act of creating a demand for these fish on our plates, we can have a positive impact in managing their numbers. You can easily source carp nearly year-round from places like Kate’s Fish at the West Side Market. Carp is a delicious fish, with flaky white flesh and a grassy sweetness reminiscent of alfalfa or wheatgrass. In my opinion, it’s the perfect fish to use for gefilte fish.
A Different Fish on Our Plate
I cook my gefilte fish in a loaf pan set in a tray of water in a 250° oven. I also have incorporated one of my favorite ingredients, koji mold, into my recipe. My super-secret move is to also incorporate the soft roe and the fish’s liver into the grind. The finished gefilte fish has a silky, almost creamy texture that I find divine.
At Larder, my delicatessen and bakery, we often serve gefilte fish as our Daily Catch fish special. Knowing the aversion many people feel toward gefilte fish, we are constantly putting modern sensibilities on it to make it more approachable for our guests. While we do serve slices of it with chrain, a carrot salad, and pickled onions, we find it to be amazing as a sandwich. Sometimes we make a gefilte fish smash burger by griddling patties of it; other times, we bread it in matzo meal to make a fried gefilte fish sandwich. It also makes for a most excellent fish stick served with slaw and hush puppies.
It is my hope that current and future generations fall in love with gefilte fish and celebrate its amazing travels and delicious heritage. It is a food that I can’t imagine living without.