The Jewish New Year should be about spirituality, about Jews’ aspirations to be better people than they were the year before, about their hopes to find and stick to the righteous path. But like most other Jewish holidays, Rosh Hashanah is really about a little bit of theology and a whole lot of food. And while Jewish mothers generally revel in feeding their broods giant-size portions of brisket, potato kugel, cholent and matzo ball soup, on this holiday there’s a custom to serve up a dish that sounds more than a tad bit fishy: fish heads.
“The practice comes from a combination of a pun and the desire for a good omen,” said Jeremy Kalmanofsky, rabbi of New York City’s Conservative Congregation Ansche Chesed. He points to a passage in Deuteronomy that reads, “God shall place you as a head and not as a tail.”
“Since ‘Rosh Hashanah’ translates literally as ‘Head of the Year,’ eating a fish head on the holiday became a little joke about the verse,” Kalmanofsky said. “You should start out your year as the head [or leader] and not the tail [or follower].” The head’s presence on the table serves as both a reminder to be in the lead and a sign that the ensuing 365 days will be filled with good fortune.
While the very idea of a good luck charm might leave some less than superstitious Jews with bad tastes in their mouths — even before they’ve bitten into the fish head, that is — Kalmanofsky feels that being a head and not a tail is simply a maxim that Jews “should strive to internalize in order to shape the rest of the year.”
Additional rationales for dishing up fish heads include the fact that fish are symbols of fertility and that the New Year is a great time to remind Jews to be fruitful and multiply. And since fish never close their eyes, their stalwart eyelid-lacking presences can ward off the evil eye.
Some individuals of Sephardic descent spurn the fish head entirely, since the Hebrew word for “fish,” “dag,” sounds too much like the Hebrew word for “worry,” “deaga.” They instead place the head of a lamb or a sheep upon their tables to symbolize the ram that took the place of Isaac on the altar during the binding of Isaac, which is described in the Torah portion we read on the holiday.
Other, more common food-related Rosh Hashanah rituals include the consumption of apples dipped in honey (to portend a sweet year), pomegranates (so that our good deeds this year will be as plentiful as the seeds in the fruit) and round challahs (so that the year will be as perfect as a circle). Some folks even avoid eating nuts, since the numerical value of the Hebrew word for “nut,” “egoz,” is equal to that of the Hebrew word for “sin,” “chet.”
Whatever the reasons for these many culinary customs, it’s wonderful that other traditions abound. Because whether you poach, fry or broil them, the fish heads are sure to be avoided by all but those with the most adventurous of palates. As Kalmanofsky put it, “Blech.”
Below is a recipe created by Shaya Klechevsky, personal chef and owner of At Your Palate (www.atyourpalate.com). Here, fish heads are prepared with the spices and cooking of the Mediterranean.
Baked Fish Provençal
2 salmon heads
4 medium shallots, thinly diced
1 tablespoon tomato paste
3 stalks celery, green only, thinly sliced (¼” thick)
2 fennel bulbs, thinly sliced (1⁄8” thick), save fronds for garnish (if have)
2 sardines (preferably the Portuguese sardines), de-boned and cut into small pieces. This will dissolve and add a very subtle flavor.
¼ cup pitted Niçoise olives, cut into thin rounds
¼ cup capers
2 oz Pernod or any lightly flavored licorice liquor (optional)
¼ cup white wine (preferably sauvignon blanc or a dry riesling)
4-6 medium plum (Roma) tomatoes, de-seeded and cut into ¼” dice
canola or blended olive oil>salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.
Wash salmon heads thoroughly under running cold water, making sure to remove any remaining innards that may be in the head cavity. Pat dry, place in a bowl and set aside.
Wash the plum tomatoes, and cut them in half the long way — from the tip to the stem. Cut the halves again the long way so that you’re left with quarter pieces from the tomato. At this point, using your fingers, remove the seeds of the tomato from the inner white ribs, or alternatively, you may place the tomato skin side down, and using the knife, slice off the layer that holds the rib and seeds, and separating it from the red flesh and skin.
Once you have the quarter pieces of tomato that was de-seeded, skin side down, begin to cut long thin 1/4” thin strips from the length of the tomato, then turn them 90 degrees, and cut 1/4” dice from the strips.
In a large and wide skillet, over a medium-high flame, heat the pan with some oil, enough to have a thin layer covering the bottom of the pan.
When the pan is hot, add the shallots and sauté them until they become soft and translucent.
Add the tomato paste to the pan, and with a wooden spoon, mix it in with the sautéed shallots, making sure to cook out the rawness of the paste for about three to five minutes.
Add the sliced celery, sliced fennel, olive rounds, capers, chopped sardines and diced tomatoes to the pan. All these ingredients will begin to release their juices. Lower the flame to medium low, and allow the ingredients to combine and reduce — about three to five minutes.
At this point, you may add the optional two ounces of Pernod and mix it in.
Add white wine, and mix it in thoroughly.
Allow to cook for another two to four minutes; the consistency shouldn’t be too soupy. If the sauce is too thick, you may add a little bit of boiling water or more white wine to thin it out.
Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Place fish heads into a small or medium Pyrex baking dish — making sure to season the heads with both salt and pepper.
Pour the sauce from the skillet over the fish heads in the baking dish, and cover with aluminum foil.
Place in the oven and bake for seven to 10 minutes, with the last two minutes uncovered, until the fish is done.
Serve on a platter with the fennel fronds (optional).
The following recipe was created by David Kolotkin, executive chef of New York City’s Prime Grill.
Fish Heads Over Rice
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
3 fish heads (preferably red snapper), gills removed
1 small white onion, medium-sized dice
1 small bulb fennel, medium diced
1 stalk celery, medium diced
1 carrot, medium diced
5-6 cloves garlic, peeled
2 tsp tomato paste
1 tsp saffron
2 oz Pernod
salt and pepper to taste
In a bowl, marinate the fish heads with half the oil and half the saffron. Marinate for two hours. Overnight is ideal.
In a deep pot, heat the rest of the oil on medium. Add the onions, and cook until translucent (two to three minutes).
Add the remaining vegetables and garlic. Cook another two to three minutes.
Add the remaining saffron, followed by the fish heads, and bloom the saffron so that the flavor and color are released (two minutes).
Add the Pernod, bring to a simmer, then cover the fish heads one inch with water.
Bring to a simmer, and cook the fish heads until tender, about 30 minutes.
Remove fish heads, and simmer broth another 30 minutes to reduce and develop more flavor. Add additional salt and pepper if needed. Pass through a strainer (fine colander).
Use this broth to cook your choice of rice in the proper ratio required.
Serve the fish heads on a bed of the finished rice, or gently flake off the meat and serve on top of the rice.
Leah Hochbaum Rosner is a freelance writer living in New York.
This story "A Fishy Tradition" was written by Leah Hochbaum Rosner.