5 Senses

Gefilte Fish

For many people gefilte fish is the epitome of traditional Jewish cooking. It was served on Shabbat and other high holidays in the shtetl, the small towns in Eastern Europe shaped by Jewish culture. Housewives procured a living fish, usually a carp, which was then killed at home. They cut open the fish’s belly in such a way that they could remove the bones and meat without tearing the skin. After mixing the meat of the fish with matzo meal or white bread, they filled the fish skin with the farce. This way, one fish was enough to satisfy the whole hungry family. Since cooking is not permitted on Shabbat, the dish was prepared before it began and eaten cold.

Even though gefilte fish can be found in all varieties of Ashkenazi cuisine, there were two distinct ways to prepare it in Eastern Europe, separated by a clear geographical line. In southwest Poland, Galicia, and German-speaking regions, people preferred to eat their gefilte fish sweet. By contrast, the so-called Litvaks, Jews from Lithuania and other regions under Russian influence, favored gefilte fish seasoned with salt and lots of pepper. As a Jewish family genealogist half-jokingly observed, you can tell from the way people like to eat their gefilte fish where their family originally came from!

This is Joan Nathan’s recipe for gefilte fish. She is the author of the well-known cookbook "Jewish cooking in America".

Ashkenaz, old Hebrew word for the region encompassing Germany, northern France, northern Italy, and later also for Eastern Europe; Ashkenazi Jews, or Ashkenazim, are the Jews who descended from the Jewish inhabitants of these areas.

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