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The gefilte story

by: Adi Shulman and Shoshana Israel - Last updated: 2004-06-25

different types of Gefilte

Popular Gefilte brand

This generation has almost completely forgotten about gefilte fish.

Type it into any online search engine and you get almost nothing. No statistics, no fun facts, no history, bubkes. When was the last time you ordered gefilte fish off of a menu? Even Shabbat dinner tables are now adorned with sushi instead our beloved whitefish.

Well that’s all about to change. To make sure the tradition never dies, we at SomethingJeiwsh found out all you’d ever want to know about the food that our bubbies and zaidies grew to adore.

It starts with a little fish, a pinch of salt, some carrots and onions, and a lot of love. Ah, yes, gefilte fish. It is the smelly food with a Jewish past, a Jewish present, and.... swimming its way into a Jewish future. One could even say it represents the Jewish people. Gefilte, like the Jews, has changed over time, spread throughout the world, and reflects a plethora of customs.

Literally meaning “stuffed fish” in Yiddish, gefilte fish originally referred to the custom of preparing fish for the Sabbath. It came about of two needs: adherence to Jewish law, along with lack of resources. The Torah law of borer prohibits on the Sabbath the separation of edible parts of an animal from the inedible. The separation of fish from its bones falls into this category.

In the late Middle Ages, Jews in Eastern Europe prepared their Sabbath fish on Friday. Unfortunately, their fish would not last so long - this was way before the refrigerator was invented in 1803. So, to preserve the fish as fresh as possible, it was discovered that adding onions kept it from going bad for a little while longer. Thus, in preparation for the Sabbath in the middle ages, Eastern Europe’s Jews removed the fish from the bone, added onions, flavor, and hoped the house didn’t smell like a fish factory. Most gefilte today is served as fish cakes, skinless.

“Gefilte fish was the perfect solution,” Zvi Ehrentreu, Perl’s Toronto manager, explains. “Because the fish is ground and minced,” he says, “there are no bones to worry about, so it’s both kosher and easy to eat.”

Moish Friedman, the owner of Friedman’s Fresh Fish in Toronto says that carp, which fill the Eastern European waters, are known for their countless bones. He gives a practical answer in addition to Ehrentreu’s religious one. “The Jews couldn’t feed the bones to their young kids, so they took the fish apart so they could have edible food for the whole family to enjoy,” he says. Friedman’s sells gefilte both raw and cooked.

Joe Hartman, owner of Hartman’s Kosher Meats in Toronto, sells roughly 30 loaves of gefilte fish each Friday afternoon, and says the delicacy is lost on the younger generation. “These kids don’t appreciate what goes into making gefilte fish,” he says. “They don’t put their heart and soul into it like their parents or grandparents did. It takes lots of work, but now you can just walk into any supermarket to buy it.”

Yet, for some reason this recipe has not disappeared along with other Jewish customs. In fact, it has remained a staple dish on the Sabbath table.

Although the custom originated with Ashkinazi Jews, Sephardic Jews have gefilte fish recipes too. The adaptable nature of this recipe has allowed each family to modify it to their liking. Traditionally, freshwater, white-fleshed fish such as pike, carp, or whitefish is used. Some like a peppery fish broth and savory fish; some like it sweetened with sugar. Changes are made all the time, whether it is the kind of fish used, the broth in which it is cooked, or the toppings.

Most North Americans prefer their gefilte fish served with horseradish, while Latin American Jews cook the gefilte fish in tomato sauce. Some like mayonnaise as a dipping sauce; others enjoy it straight-up.

Despite these modifications and alterations, gefilte fish has survived, amazingly. While not nearly as popular as other Jewish foods such as the bagel, kugel, knish, falafel, or chicken soup, gefilte reigns supreme on every Jewish celebration table.

As for that omnipresent jelly goo found in gefilte fish jars…. Well, that’s another story.

Gefilte facts:

Manischewitz alone sells over 1.5 million jars nationally and internationally - that’s one jar for every ten Jews in the world.

Los Angeles is the leading gefilte fish market

Gefilte fish is typically low carb, low fat, low saturated fat, high in protein, and contains Omega 3

Manischewitz offers approximately 30 gefilte fish items - in varieties and sizes, like Gefilte Fish, Premium Gold Gefilte Fish, White Fish & Pike, All Whitefish, and Fishlets. Sizes range from 14 oz. to 4 lbs, with 24 oz. being the most popular.

First published in Afterword , the home of Canada's only Jewish student newspaper.