Friday, April 24, 2009

The Truth About Gefilte Fish

There is a little known secret that, hidden in what was once the Russian Pale of Settlement (basically Belarus and Eastern Poland), there is a deep, fresh water lake stocked with the unique fish called gefilte... Just kidding. But it is true that gefilte fish is a uniquely Ashkenazi Jewish food...So where did it come from?

Gefilte fish is generally made of filleted, ground fish, usually carp, pike and/or whitefish. The ground fish is then combined with ingredients such as matzah meal, egg and seasonings, after which it is either boiled or baked . Originally, the ground fish was then stuffed back into the skin of the whole fish--thus the origin of the name gefilte (derived from the German word for stuffed). Today, most people purchase gefilte fish in jars, fully prepared, or in frozen loaves that can be easily seasoned and prepared.

It is commonly thought that Jews began eating gefilte fish as a means of avoiding the melacha (creative work forbidden on Shabbat) of bo'rayr (sorting the bad out of the good). Fish served whole often left a person with the difficult challenge of dealing with the small bones on Shabbat. Filleted gefilte fish, however, has no bones.

A practical reason for the popularity of gefilte fish, however, was probably budgetary. Ground fish can serve more people, and the extra ingredients also add taste to less expensive species of fish.

Gefilte fish is most often served with ground horseradish, either with or without beets, known as chrain (Yiddish). The origin of this custom, however, is shrouded in the annals of Jewish cooking history. Any PhD students interested?

For a delicious gefilte fish recipe, click here.


engineer27 said...

I'll agree with the budgetary considerations. When you add in the fact that gefilte fish generally is going to use the cheaper fish (cheaper in 19th century Russia, that is) and the less desirable parts of the fish (like the head), it just makes economic sense. As my beshert points out, stuffing it all back into the empty skin makes it at least look more elegant, so you can at least pretend to be honoring Shabbat like your wealthier friends.

Lots of Jewish Soul food falls into this category. I came across a recipe in a Jewish cookbook for what is essentially the broken noodles that would be left at the bottom of a crate, and unsellable as regular pasta.


Lazer said...

'Budgetary considerations' is the upper end of the scale. Many Jews living in the Pale lived in poverty and deprivation, often outright destitution, God have compassion. The reknowned photographer, Roman Vishniac, was sent to Europe in the late '30s' by the Joint to make photographs for the sake of raising money for the plight of Jews in Europe. In realizing what was really happening, of his own volition he began photographing children, "Who knows if anyone will ever see them again..."

His photographs of children would years later be gathered by his daughter and published in a book entitled, Children of a Vanishing World, of which a number of editions exist. I once shared a copy I have with my father-in-law, who grew up in poverty near Budapesht, Hungary, thinking that he'd enjoy seeing the faces of these beautiful Jewish neshamot. The opposite happened; the photographs tore him apart. All that he could see was the retched - and there really are some pictures of the genuine destitution - poverty the Jews were living in, and it brought him all the way back to his own upbringing and destitution.

Eating the crumbs might be a measure of poverty, but having a recipe for how to use them is a measure of the severity of their plight.


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