|Photo courtesy of Manischewitz|
Amazing. In over two decades of attending Passover seders, this was the first time I heard anyone ask the question that no one knows the answer to. During a holiday where we sing a song about Four Questions, it seems appropriate to delve into one culinary one:
Gefilte fish is one of those acquired tastes, which is a a polite way of saying it's abhorrent to anyone who didn't grow up eating it. Most American Jews recognize it as beige football-shaped lumps that slide out of a Manischewitz jar. Packed in translucent jelly or liquid, each has the texture of finely ground meatloaf with a flavor that's unmistakably but nonspecifically fishy. You pile on as much fiery white and red horseradish as your taste buds can tolerate to mask the smell and inject a semblance of freshness.
Before gefilte fish swam through the industrial food complex to become a pantry item, it was conceived in the kitchens of poor European Jews as early as the Middle Ages. According to the Jewish Daily Forward, peasants "purchased ground scraps of bottom-feeding fish and mixed them with matzo meal or egg, oil and sometimes onion." A different article from the Forward says the Yiddish word "gefilte" means "stuffed" and refers to the early practice of cramming the ground fish mixture back into the skin of fish before being sewn and baked. That explanation contradicts the idea that shoppers were buying already ground fish and therefore wouldn't have the skin. Perhaps the latter method was preferred but reserved for wealthier families.
Modern jarred gefilte fish contains carp, mullet, whitefish, and pike. It's prepared with a little sugar which conforms to the version favored by Western European and Polish Jews. Those living in the former USSR liked it peppery. The fish met the jar in the 1960s and parked itself in the "ethnic foods" aisle ever since.
Making it from scratch is an allegedly time-consuming and stinky process, but there are several recipes to guide fearless cooks. If there is such a thing as elegant gefilte fish, it may be this highly-rated one from Epicurious composed of halibut and salmon. See the recipe. The rest of us will spend the next week unscrewing lids