Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Weird Food Wednesdays: Gefilte Fish

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?

Gefilte fish
Eggs, beaten
Panko breadcrumbs
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.



Heavenly Housewife said...

Whoah, that is brave to eat! My husband once asked me what it was, I told him that gefite fish the MDF (particle board) of fish. Yuck :p

Anonymous said...

love it - some how I knew, I just knew that this was going to be the topic of Weird Food Wednesday - glad you checked it out. I like the tempera pic - your food styling is the bomb =)

Tangled Noodle said...

Gefilte fish is easier to find than century egg! The grayish color is a bit of a turn-off but your deep-fried version looks really quite good! I, for one, totally appreciate your thorough and enthusiastic full-participation research into these foods!

Phyllis said...

Heavenly Housewife: MDF of fish -LOL! My hubby would probably agree with your hilariosu assessment. I myself didn't think it tasted that bad but I do tend to like strange things!

oysterculture: I just KNEW that YOU would know...and thank you so much for your kind words about my "food styling" - haha - I try!

tangled noodle: normally I don't do any research for my posts, I just write about personal knowledge and experience, but I thought I should do some research this time since gefilte fish is a traditional passover food and I wanted to give it a fair review. I'm glad it did the research, I ended up learning a lot about Jewish food!

Thank you for all your comments!

Teanna said...

I just got home from Passover dinner and just had my first taste of gefilte fish! My boyfriend is Jewish and although we've been dating for 4 years, this is the first seder I've been to since we've been dating that served gefilte fish! I felt so bad, because I actually couldn't finish it and didn't want to be rude! But that tempure looks awesome - I think I'd be able to finish it if I had that!

Christine aka Mistress of Cakes said... you're wierd..but in a cool kind of ...don't want to go to your house to eat kind of way. By the way....I DOUBLE DARE YOU TO EAT GRASS really exhists. You find it...You eat it...and I will throw up for you...*coughs* I mean be proud of you. Bravo...good good...carry on.

For real though...great blog! I should start a Anne Rice foodie fan club..I know another food blogger who loves Anne Rice.

Phyllis said...

Teanna: I'm SO jealous you got to attend a Seder! I didn't know you're allowed to attend if you're not Jewish. So I guess there's still a chance I'll get invited to a Seder one day! And I doubt anyone was offended that you couldn't finish the gefilte fish (sure it happens all the time)

Christine, Mistress of Cakes: OH PUH-LEASE! I've been eating grass jelly since I was in diapers! :)
Stayed tuned for an upcoming Weird Food Wednesday - I double dare you not to like my black grass jelly recipe!

Thank you both for reading my blog and for your comments, they mean a lot!

Passionate Eater said...

My dad actually used to work for a Kosher food processing plant when he first came to America, and I actually grew up eating gefite fish, believe it or not! My dad tried to say it was just like our Chinese fish balls, but I was never convinced. I think Kris's request of deep-fried gefite fish might be the best one yet!

Jenn said...

I've never had gefilte fish. I've heard of it, but not seen or tasted.

I take a gander and give it a try, some day probably in tempura form first.

Phyllis said...

Passionate Eater: I thought it would be like Chinese fish balls too (and it totally wasn't)

Jenn: Don't buy the whole jar unless you are planning on serving a truckload of tempura gefilte to company. Maybe just pick up a tiny piece from a kosher deli to try!

Thank you for your comments!

Justin Schwartz said...

tempura gefilte fish... that's fantastic!

Lori Lynn said...

Hi Phyllis - i came by again to thank you for participating in the Passover Round-up. Your post is really informative, and I think that well, no tempura for Passover, this is a good idea for afterwards! Love how you plated it too.
Thanks again,
Lori Lynn

Scavenger said...

hmm..fried gefilte fish...I may need to try.

Re: Sedars. Obviously you need to know someone hosting a Sedar, but Sedars are traditional and religious, but not holy. Passover is a celebration day, not a holy day, and all are welcomed. I've often hosted sedars for friends, even when I'm the only Jewish person there. (If nothing else, Christians can experience what the Last Supper was all about.)

Sweet vs Savory: interestingly, I'm of Polish decent, but I perfer the more savory Maneshevitz to the sweeter brands (never tried a deli made, one..darn lack of delis :( )

Anonymous said...

So, I just wanted to explain a bit about gefilte fish, as someone who has grown up eating it.

The best gefilte fish is bought in the freezer section, although locating some usually either requires living in an area with a significant Jewish population. You then boil it. I like that type a lot, and it's apparently a pretty good approximation of homemade gefilte fish. Gefilte fish is, of course, always eaten cold, including the type you boil.

The next best is all whitefish gefilte fish from the jar, I'm told, although I tend to ignore all of the jarred stuff. I'm too spoiled for it. I do like it with horseradish, but enough horseradish and the taste of the fish is irrelevant.

Anyway, I just wanted to let you know that most people's exposure to gefilte fish is only to the least appetizing preparation of it that I've ever seen. Mind, even the boiled type is a bit of an acquired taste, particularly if it's sweet, which I admit I adore. It's a treat for us, but most of our non-Jewish friends try a bit and then ask for real food, please. So...