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When Hearty Gefilte Fish Kept Shtetls Stuffed

Gefilte fish is at once the zenith and nadir of Ashkenazic cookery: Is there any other dish that so typifies its extraordinary resourcefulness in the Old World and its long decline in the New?

Gefilte fish is a forcemeat — chopped and seasoned meat or fish usually used for stuffing — made from ground-up freshwater fish mixed with matzo meal, eggs, chopped onion and spices. The forcemeat is rolled into balls, poached in a fish stock and served cold. Gefilte is the Yiddish word meaning “stuffed” (no, Virginia, there is no fish called a gefilte), because in its earliest incarnation the forcemeat was not rolled into balls, but rather stuffed back into the skin of the fish; the fish was then sewn up again and baked. The dish, now a Passover staple, dates back to Germany in the Middle Ages — the earliest recipe for stuffed pike appears in a non-Jewish German manuscript circa 1350, and by the early 15th century a German rabbinic authority was discussing the kashrut implications of adding vinegar to fish hash on the Sabbath.

Though pike was the original gefilte fish, by the end of the Middle Ages carp was mostly used instead. Native to China, carp had been introduced to Eastern Europe during the 17th century, in part by Jewish traders working the silk routes. Jews, who were excluded from most of the traditional European guilds, quickly seized on this new opportunity and began to breed carp in specially managed ponds in Poland. Among Jews, carp was often served cold on the Sabbath, not just in gefilte fish but in other preparations as well, including jellied carp — carp long-poached in water (sometimes with white wine) and then served cold in its own jelly. In his memoir of his travels among Polish Jews in the 1920s, the French food writer Edouard de Pomiane observed of jellied carp, “This is the classic carp dish as it appears on all the Sabbath luncheon tables. If one had to sum up all of Jewish cooking in a single dish, this is the one that would epitomize it.” Jellied carp was so popular, in fact, that it eventually became known as carpe à la juive, “carp in the Jewish style,” and as such was offered in four variations in the encyclopedia of French haute cuisine, Larousse Gastronomique.

As a rule, the Jews of Poland liked their food sweeter than did Jews elsewhere, and this holds true for gefilte fish as well; by the middle of the 19th century, Polish gefilte fish was primarily sweetened with sugar. David and Diane Roskies have speculated that this variation may correlate with the rise of chasidism in the region — the chasidim tend to like their food sweet, associating sugar with the joy of religious celebration — though a more materialist explanation would point to the profusion of Jewish-owned sugar refineries in the surrounding area.

In Lithuania, on the other hand, gefilte fish was heavily spiced with pepper and served with horseradish. In his 1965 doctoral dissertation, “The Yiddish Language in Northern Poland: Its Geography and History,” based on interviews with Jews from pre-Holocaust Eastern Europe, Marvin Herzog presented what is now known as the “gefilte fish line.” The line runs north to south, about 40 miles east of Warsaw; west of it, the preferred gefilte fish preparation was sweet, while to the east the fish was peppery. Interestingly, Herzog also quoted a Polish professor of ethnographic studies, who noted that while sweetened fish was often called “Polish fish” by Jews, among non-Jewish Poles it was known as “Jewish fish.”

It’s not hard to understand why a recipe like gefilte fish would become such a mainstay among the Jews of Eastern Europe, poorer and often more strictly observant than their counterparts in the West. Fish is pareve and can thus be served as part of any kosher meal; further, as a cold dish, gefilte fish can be made earlier in the week and then served on the Sabbath, and because it contains no bones that need to be picked out of the fish, it does not infringe on Sabbath regulations prohibiting work. Equally important, fish was relatively expensive and could be stretched by being combined with cheaper ingredients — certainly a major benefit for a Jewish housewife of limited means (what’s more, she could also serve the poaching liquid as soup).

In the United States, gefilte fish has traditionally been made from carp mixed in equal parts with pike and whitefish; more carp will result in a somewhat deeper flavor, but turns the mixture a darker color. Sometimes the mixture was augmented with a fourth fish, buffalo fish (often known among Jewish immigrants as “buffel,” from the Yiddish word meaning buffalo), which resembles carp and today can often be found in Chinese fish markets.

In many American families, stories are told about how every year bubbe used to keep a huge carp swimming around in the upstairs bathtub until the house was cleaned for Passover and the gefilte fish preparation could be begun. (Barbara Cohen’s charming children’s book “The Carp in the Bathtub” offers one rendition of the story.) The stories, though, are amusing because of their very archaism; for today, of course, the fish is most often found not in the bathtub, or even anywhere near the kitchen, but rather in jars in the appetizing cases of the local supermarket. This is a shame, really, because jarred gefilte fish tends to be rubbery and gelatinous, the sort of thing that could put one off the stuff for life. Homemade gefilte fish, on the other hand, can be a treat, delicate in taste and feathery light. To make it so, the balls should be poached in a good fish stock, thriftily made with the heads, skin and bones of the fish one is using. Refrigerate overnight (like brisket, gefilte fish is best made the day before) and serve chilled, lightly coated in the jellied broth, with good horseradish on the side. And then, please, toss out the jars.

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In this unusual and delicious main-course version of gefilte fish, the fish balls are lightly fried and then poached in tomato sauce. The dish was created by Raquel Gittler of Mexico City; her husband likes to call it “Gefilte Fish a la Raquelita.”

Gefilte Fish a la Veracruzana (Mexican Fried Fish Balls in Spicy Tomato Sauce)

for fish:

2 pounds skinless red snapper fillets

2 carrots, peeled and chopped

1 small onion, chopped

1 celery stalk, chopped

2 eggs, lightly beaten

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

2 tsp. sugar

1/4 cup water

1/4 cup matzo meal, or as needed

Vegetable oil for frying

for sauce:

2 tbsp. olive or other vegetable oil

1 onion, chopped

2 garlic cloves, chopped

2 red peppers, sliced

28-ounce can crushed tomatoes

1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes, or to taste

1. Rinse the fish and pat it dry, then slice it into 1-inch strips. Place the fish, carrots, onion and celery in the bowl of a food processor and process until a paste is formed. Transfer to a large mixing bowl. Add the eggs, salt, pepper, sugar and water. Stir in enough matzo meal to make a soft mixture that will hold its shape when pressed together. With moistened hands, form the mixture into balls about 2 inches in diameter.
2. In a large skillet, add oil to a depth of about 1/2 inch and heat over medium heat. Fry the fish balls until they are lightly golden on all sides, turning as necessary. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels.
3. In a Dutch oven or other large, heavy pot, heat the 2 tablespoons of oil over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring often, until just soft. Add the garlic and the red peppers and cook, stirring occasionally, until the peppers are soft. Add the tomatoes, parsley, salt, pepper and red pepper flakes. (Add a little water to thin out the sauce, if desired.) Cover and bring to a boil, then lower heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, for another 10 minutes.
4. Add the fish balls to the sauce and simmer, covered, for 1 hour over low heat. Transfer the fish balls to a large serving platter and ladle the sauce over them. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Serves 4 to 6.


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