The Jewish observance of Passover begins at sundown tonight and continues for 8 days. And although I’m not Jewish, I’ve chosen a traditional Passover food for my topic this week: Gefilte Fish.
Gefilte literally means "stuffed” in Yiddish. Originally, ground-up deboned fish (whitefish, carp, pike, mullet or a combination) was stuffed back into fish skin before serving. Today, gefilte fish normally refers to only the stuffing, which is formed into balls or patties and served chilled, commonly with horseradish. Gefilte fish was traditionally eaten during weekly Sabbath, but nowadays usually makes its appearance during Passover or other feast-worthy Jewish holidays.
Although fish embodies much symbolism in the Jewish faith, representing fruitfulness, good fortune and mystical dimension, gefilte fish basically evolved from a practical need for food that could be prepared ahead. Work is not permitted on Sabbath/religious holidays and the laborious task of removing tiny bones from fish qualifies as work. The solution was to simply prepare the fish ahead of time, hence the creation of gefilte fish. In the past, gefilte fish was made from scratch in a time consuming process. Today, many settle for the premade bottled variety from the store.
I’ve been staring at bottled gefilte fish in the supermarket for years. Despite its unappetizing appearance, I had a strange feeling that I might like it, but I really had no idea how to eat it. Last week I called my good friend Rory to see whether he had any advice for a first timer. “I don’t like it”, replied Rory. OK, not exactly what I was looking for but he did give me a short history lesson about Passover and the symbolism behind the special food included in the Seder plate (thanks, Rory).
Roving reporter Kris had more success with a couple co-workers. Brad prefers homemade gefilte fish served plain, while Lou likes it from the jar (jellied broth version from Manischewitz or Mother’s brand), served with horseradish.
Over the weekend, I purchased a large 24 oz bottle of Manischewitz Gefilte Fish in jellied broth (6 pieces for $5) and a single dry piece of gefilte fish ($1.20) from the kosher deli section of my local Wegman’s. I was thrilled that everyone I met that day wanted to add in their 2 cents about gefilte fish - the older gentleman in line whose ears perked up when he heard me ask about the gefilte fish (“good stuff!”, he exclaimed), the young man behind the deli counter who marveled about fish balls being sold in a jar (he asked me to show him the bottled version in my cart for proof), and even our friendly cashier (who remarked that she’d never seen someone buy such a small quantity of deli gefilte fish; she herself prefers the bottled version served with lots of “cover-up” condiments, such as red chrain).
Since I couldn’t find any bottled red chrain I just made my own version using horseradish, beets, vinegar and sugar blitzed in my mini food processor for a few seconds. I was now ready to have my first taste of gefilte fish. I started with the Manischewitz Gefilte Fish in jellied broth. When I opened the bottle, the intense smell threw me off a bit, but the taste was actually milder than I expected, slightly fishy but not offensive (the flavor reminds me of canned dark meat tuna or sardines). Horseradish was the perfect accompaniment, masking some of the strong flavor. Perhaps the blend of fish used in this variety (carp, mullet, whitefish and pike) and the fact it was bottled in jellied broth (made with fish bones) resulted in a fishier tasting product. Carp has a reputation for tasting muddy if the dark flesh (or “mud vein”) is not removed. Next time I’ll be sure to look for an “all whitefish” variety which probably has a milder taste.
The Wegman’s gefilte fish, made with a combination of whitefish and mullet, was much lighter in color (almost white) and tasted very mild and surprisingly sweet. Jews of Polish or German descent like their gefilte fish on the sweet side. But I definitely prefer my fish savory.
You won't see me rushing out to buy either version again soon, but I’m totally open to trying more gefilte fish in the future. With all the commercial varieties and recipes available today, I’m bound to like something somewhere. (Readers – leave me a comment below with your favorite brand/variety or recipe).
Kris had initially agreed to participate in the taste test, but after taking a whiff of the Manischewitz gefilte fish, he refused to eat it straight from the bottle. He’s never been a fan of processed food, and he likes his food served warm. So he offered up a novel suggestion, “Could you maybe deep fry it for me?” Funny that he should ask - I just finished reading an article about deep fried gefilte fish, which is apparently quite popular in the UK. Deep frying makes everything delicious but I decided to add my own special twist: gefilte fish tempura!
Gefilte Fish Tempura
Obviously, I don’t recommend making this for Passover – although the box of Kikkoman Panko breadcrumbs I used has an OU kosher certification, it does NOT explicitly say that it’s “kosher for Passover” and is therefore considered Chametz (which is forbidden during Passover). And I used regular all purpose flour in the breading process, which is also Chametz. But wouldn’t this be a great way to use up leftover gefilte fish once Passover is over?
All purpose flour
Vegetable oil for deep frying
Pat gefilte fish dry with paper towels and cut into bite sized pieces
Coat lightly with all purpose flour
Dip into egg, letting any excess drip off
Generously dredge in panko breadcrumbs
Deep fry until golden brown in 350 degree oil
Drain on paper towels
Serve warm with wasabi mayo and/or chrain
It smelled so good when I was deep frying - I was dying to taste it!
As you can see, I had some fun with the schmearing and dotting:
The verdict: the crispy panko definitely improved the taste. If I closed my eyes, it tasted almost like a deep fried oyster! Kris was indifferent about it, but he’s never been one to enjoy strong seafood flavors.
Now if I can only figure out what to do with the rest of the bottle (maybe gefilte sushi?– I think the fishiness would pair quite nicely with rice wine vinegar).
Happy Passover! ''L'Chaim!''
4/18/09 Update: My tempura gefilte fish made it into Taste With The Eyes' Passover Round-Up 2009! And it was also featured in Serious Eats' Got Leftover Gefilte Fish? Deep Fry It!
Cohen, Jayne. The Gefilte Variations. New York, New York: Scribner, 2000.
Hirsch, Anita. Our Food: The Kosher Kitchen Updated. New York, New York: Doubleday, 1992.
Davis, Mitchell. The Mensch Chef. New York, New York: Clarkson Potter, 2001.
Marks, Gil. Something's fishy in the State of Israel, Orthodox Union website.