The most heated discussion to take place around the Jewish high holiday table will center around politics, as usual. A close second—if my family is any indication—will be about gefilte fish.
Many Jewish foods have shed their shtetl roots and merged seamlessly with the mainstream, but gefilte fish is not one of them. Described as the “sausage of the sea,” or a pescatarian alternative to meatloaf, the dish is labor-intensive to prepare, aggressively fishy, and, when cooked from scratch, has the potential to stink up your house until next Purim. Even amongst people who have grown up eating it, gefilte fish can be a hard sell.
To clarify, gefilte is not a species of fish. In its simplest form, gefilte fish is an aggregate of white-fleshed fish (generally pike, whitefish, or carp) ground up and combined with eggs, spices, and vegetables to form a fish paste. This mixture is then fashioned into patties or poured into a terrine dish and cooked. In its most impressive form, the fish mixture is reinserted into a fish carcass (gefilte is Yiddish for “stuffed”), baked, and presented as a show-stopping appetizer.
Dreamed up by poor Eastern European Jews, gefilte fish is a dish that checks many boxes. Ashkenazi Jews settled inland, so lake fish contributed to a large portion of their diets. Jewish religious restrictions forbid Jews from deboning fish on the Sabbath, so resourceful Jewish women conceived of a meatless dish that could be prepared ahead of time and served cold. Gefilte fish endured and today, the fish remains a traditional staple of Passover Seders and Rosh Hashanah dinners.
It’s also worth noting that fish is considered an aphrodisiac, and in Jewish culture, having sex on the Sabbath constitutes a good deed. For low-income Jewish parents, gefilte fish was a two-fer: Providing a cost-effective way to feed their large families while sexually incentivizing them to continue procreating.
“I love gefilte fish but I like it homemade and I don’t like it with a lot of sugar,” said Joan Nathan, the acclaimed Jewish cookbook author who most recently published King Solomon’s Table. Like everything else involving the contested food, the decision to sweeten gefilte fish is a divisive one. Geographically speaking, Jews from Poland enjoy the sweet interpretation of the dish, while those from more Northern areas like Lithuania prefer it savory.
The real gefilte fish dispute—and the reason why so many Jews have what’s affectionately known as “gefilte fish baggage”—stems from the food’s preparation. “The first characteristic [of bad gefilte fish] is that it comes in a jar,” said Jeffrey Yoskowitz, co-founder of The Gefilteria, a food movement designed to celebrate Ashkenazi foods and expose them to a new generation. “Gefilte fish was always the first line of attack. If we can change the perception around gefilte fish, we can do anything.”
The reason the perception around gefilte fish needs changing is because the mass-manufactured version of the food, stated baldly, is very bad. When Eastern European Jews began immigrating to America, they brought gefilte fish with them. Shortly after World War II, companies like Manischewitz began producing pre-made, jarred gefilte fish and marketing it to overworked Jewish mothers as a convenient alternative (it’s gefilte fish, but without all the work, fuss, and lingering fish odor!)
These gefilte fish manufacturers were so committed to replicating the original that in 1963, two New York inventors were granted a patent for creating a synthetic fish gel intended to emulate the fish goo naturally found in homemade gefilte fish. This is how many of us (myself included) experienced gefilte fish: As industrialized, gray fish sponges floating in a viscous gel, served straight from the jar. It’s unsurprising that many of us who grew up eating gefilte fish sourced from the kosher aisle now carry a very strong aversion to the food.
And yet, when created using high-quality fish and baked from scratch, gefilte fish has deliciousness potential. Similarly to how sushi is paired with a dab of wasabi, gefilte fish is generally served alongside a horseradish relish and garnished with a carrot (Nathan is an advocate for making the horseradish from scratch; she infuses hers with cooked beets for sugar and a vibrant red color.) The Gefilteria offers a gluten-free take on the food and one of their recipes includes a ribbon of salmon baked into the loaf, a creative and visually satisfying improvement on the dish.
For those who might be deterred by the lengthy preparation process, Yoskowitz says he and his Gefilteria co-founder Liz Alpern have a recipe that takes only 90 minutes to make (see below) and maintains the ideal gefilte fish texture while decreasing the dish’s intense fishiness. But for many, it is the arduous process of creating gefilte fish from scratch that makes it so appealing. Ultimately, cooking gefilte fish is a labor of love—and sometimes true love leaves your house smelling of fish.
Herbed Gefilte Fish
Recipe by Jeffrey Yoskowitz and Liz Alpern
Makes 1 small terrine; serves 8 to 10
1 small onion, coarsely chopped
12 oz. whitefish fillet, skin removed, flesh coarsely chopped
1 1/4 Tbsp. vegetable or grapeseed oil
1 large egg
2 Tbsp. coarsely chopped fresh watercress (or spinach)
2 Tbsp. coarsely chopped fresh dill
1 tsp. kosher salt
1/8 tsp. freshly ground white pepper
1 Tbsp. sugar
Store-bought horseradish relish
If there are any bones left in your fillets, remove the larger ones by hand, but don’t fret about the smaller ones since they’ll be pulverized in the food processor. You can buy your fish pre-ground from a fishmonger (usually a Jewish fishmonger) to ensure all the bones are removed, but try to cook your fish that day since ground fish loses freshness faster.
Place the onion in the bowl of a large food processor and process until finely ground and mostly liquefied. Add the fish fillets to the food processor along with the rest of the ingredients, except for the horseradish. Pulse in the food processor until the mixture is light-colored and evenly textured throughout. Scoop into a bowl and give it an additional stir to ensure that all the ingredients are evenly distributed throughout.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Line an 8-by-3 inch loaf pan with parchment paper and fill the pan with the fish mixture. Smooth out with a spatula.
Place the loaf pan on a baking sheet on the middle rack of the oven and bake for 40 to 45 minutes. The terrine is finished when the corners and ends begin to brown. The loaf will give off some liquid. Cool to room temperature before removing from the pan and slicing. Serve with horseradish relish.
Excerpted from the book The Gefilte Manifesto by Jeffrey Yoskowitz and Liz Alpern. Copyright © 2016 by Gefilte Manifesto LLC. Reprinted with permission from Flatiron Books. All rights reserved.