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.