Written by: Erin Parfet

Gefilte Fish

fish articleGefilte fish, which means “filled”or "stuffed” fish, is essentially any combination of seasoned carp, pike, whitefish, mullet, or perch-based meatloaf. It is most frequently consumed on the Shabbat in Orthodox households because cooking and lighting fires are not permitted on either the Shabbat or certain holidays. Furthermore, removing bones from flesh is also prohibited on the Sabbath. Thus, one could readily prepare and chill gefilte fish ahead of the Sabbath and enjoy it either at room temperature or chilled from the refrigerator on the Sabbath without violating any mitzvot (commandments). Furthermore, fish is readily enjoyed on Sabbath because it can be eaten freely with either meat or dairy, increasing one’s meal options while aligning with Jewish dietary laws.

Fish consumption on Shabbat has not been uncommon in Jewish cultures since the days of the Talmud, as some sages believed the pungent fish odor would encourage couples to “be fruitful and multiply.” Other rabbis described it as one way to “delight” in the Shabbat, as the Talmud describes fish consumption as the “ultimate Shabbat meal.” Some Jewish communities have made it a tradition to include gefilte fish, sometimes known as a “Pescatarian’s meatloaf” or the “Hot dog of the sea” at the beginning of their Passover Seders (Passover meals).

Gefilte fish is not originally Jewish in its history but was first speared in a gentile German cookbook under the terminology of gefuelten hechden, which translates to stuffed pike. German Jews would often use pike, whereas Polish Jews would have more affinity for carp or whitefish-based variations of the recipe; southern Polish and northern Ukrainian Jews may prefer recipes utilizing a sweetened fish; Lithuanian Jews tend to heap on the pepper; British Jews may have preferred cod or haddock-based recipes due to their proximity to the sea (compared to freshwater sources for fish); and some Russian and Belarusian Jews may have even added beets to their gefilte fish recipes.

Regardless of how exactly it was made, the fish was often poached, mashed, seasoned, and roasted in its fish skin. This meal was quite common among Catholics who chose to abstain from consuming meat during the Lenten season. The concept of gefilte fish spread and became quite common in Eastern European cuisine, but made its way back into Jewish cuisine during the Middle Ages, when some rabbis figured the now-referred-to-as-gefilte-fish represented fertility as well as the coming of the Messiah, which Jewish legend says will come in the form of a fish in the sea. It helped that the fish was easily accessible and economical for the Jewish communities of the time, despite the dish taking a lot of time to prepare.

Sometimes the fish will be ground and one may add bread, matzo meal, pepper, seasonings, sugar, onions, celery, and raw eggs, and then the seasoned ground fish balls may be poached along with such things as carrots. Families who are struggling more financially may request only the fish head, bones, and skin to save money. Once the poached fish balls cool, the chemistry involved results in a type of jelly that accompanies the fish balls. One may then enjoy their gefilte fish balls with such sides as horseradish (khreyn in Yiddish). Some view gefilte fish as a delicacy, whereas others are repulsed by the taste, texture, and appearance of it.

The concept was seemingly perfect at the time: the readily available, economical fish, one of the least expensive kosher fishes available at the market or by the fishmonger, could easily feed a family while fulfilling all the Sabbath mitzvot. One would trap the fish and let it swim in the home bathtub on Thursday, kill and prepare the fish early on Friday, and have a meal prepared by sundown on Friday. However, the recipe has evolved to be more economical in terms of preparation time. It was time-consuming to grind fish, add seasonings and fillers, and return the seasoned fish filling to the fish skin; therefore, the recipe evolved to essentially become a fish patty poached in a seasoned fish broth.

During the 19th century, the first sugar beet manufacturing operations commenced in southern Poland, and sugar, as a novelty and generally regarded as a precious commodity in Europe, started being incorporated into everything—even dishes generally deemed more savory, including gefilte fish. Whereas the sugar trend never made its way to Lithuania, and Jewish people there still prefer their gefilte fish thick with pepper and horseradish.

When the European Jews started immigrating to America, they brought with them the gefilte fish recipes of their homelands. However, the practice of homemade gefilte fish started to die out in America when families realized they could buy the same gefilte fish in local markets and street vendors at the same price without having to arduously prepare the food themselves.

Furthermore, as delis, ready-to-eat foods, canned foods, marketplaces, ethnic street vendors, and chop suey houses became more prominent in American cities where Jewish people tended to settle upon immigration, the future of gefilte fish became endangered. Religious leaders along with business owners joined together to market gefilte fish as some kind of symbol of the American Jewish experience, not wanting to see this dish fade into the history books. They heavily advertised in the Yiddish newspapers and in various kosher markets, promoting gefilte fish recipes that mimicked what one’s Jewish grandmother would have made in the olden times of yesteryear. Yet, the gefilte fish concept still seemed to be losing its appeal overall.

Gefilte fish gained a resurgence in popularity around the time of the Second World War. The Heinz Company became the first major food company in America to mass produce kosher food products just before the war broke out in the European theater, and Coca-Cola quickly jumped on board soon after that. With Jewish people pouring into America after the Holocaust, the need for kosher and traditional foods comparatively exploded. Gefilte fish lends itself well to the type of preservation that can be fulfilled with vacuum-sealed jars and modern canning technology. The Manischewitz company has now produced 16 different types of gefilte fish, especially with efforts to market the product and “reclaim the glory of Ashkenazi food” to younger generations.

By the 1950s, some popular Jewish periodicals deemed gefilte fish the “Jewish national dish,” which was iconic at all sorts of events ranging from weddings, bar mitzvahs, holidays, charity events, and synagogues, and was even served to President Dwight Eisenhower to commemorate the 300th anniversary of gefilte fish making its way to American shores.

Modern canning and jarring processes made it somewhat more appealing for the gefilte fish tradition to continue through the ages when one did not have to deal with the preparation and mess of the fish and the distinct aroma of the fish in one’s home when the fish came already basically prepared and submerged in jellied broth. Even the canned and jarred versions of gefilte fish sometimes come with additional sugar already added, depending on the part of the world, for those who prefer sweetened gefilte fish, and sometimes without sugar for those who prefer more savory variations of gefilte fish seasoned to their personal taste.

One might still need to boil some water, add some carrots and perhaps other vegetables, and then add the fish from the can or jar. But this has simplified lives for many people who appreciated having fish available and easily mass-produced to consume on Sabbath without the need for reheating.

Gefilte fish today tends to be served as a matter of tradition, especially on Friday nights, even if it is no longer stuffed fish in a technical sense but more of a fish loaf. Though raising and selling carp was a common profession among the Jews of Eastern Europe, gefilte fish today can be made of nearly any type of kosher fish, generally purchased in vacuum-sealed jars in one’s local grocery store.

Even in the 21st century, gefilte fish is still traditionally served with horseradish, perhaps mixed with sweet beets, to mask an otherwise bland product many may deem unpalatable on its own. More exotic variations of the recipe in modern times may include additions of quinoa, arugula, Asian flare in the form of soy sauce or perhaps even teriyaki sauce, chickpeas, jalapenos, mangos, such spices as turmeric or tamarind, or any other variation one may wish. Many communities in modern times have expressed their preference for sustainably sourced fish to be made available in the marketplace.

Gefilte fish, a traditional Jewish dish, is gradually making a comeback anywhere from humble street markets to festive holiday tables. Though it is not as well known today as it was in the past, that does not mean gefilte fish has completely disappeared from the Jewish culinary lexicon. Whether served warm or chilled, gefilte fish remains a cherished part of Jewish cuisine, connecting generations and preserving culinary heritage.

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