A carp bounces around in the family bath tub before being gutted, deboned, mixed with spices, and stuffed back into its skin before being presented at the center of a Friday night dinner table to celebrate the coming of Shabbat. Or maybe it’s served in a walnut sauce or poached and served for the Passover Seder. Or it comes out as jellied fish balls floating around in an ungodly goo––relegated to a culinary gag brought out on rare occasions to gross out the kids.
For better or worse, there are few foods more Jewish to an Ashkenazi Jew than gefilte fish––or “stuffed fish” in Yiddish. Sure, non-Jews might think of bagels or matzo ball soup, and most Jews would probably prefer to take credit for those. But deep down, every Ashkenazi Jew knows that gefilte fish is gastronomic mishpacha.
And yet gefilte fish’s soured reputation is a relatively recent development in the grand scheme of culinary history, Jewish or otherwise. In reality, the dish goes back to the Middle Ages. Back then, it was wildly popular—not for Shabbat, not for Passover, but for Lent.
“Lent,” you might say? “Goyish.”
Gefilte Fish for Lent
Gil Marks breaks down gefilte fish's gentile origins in his 2010 book, Encyclopedia of Jewish Food. First he takes it back to the Ancient Romans, who he says would frequently skin animals, chop up their flesh, and stuff it back into the skin before cooking.
But it's the upper-class Medieval Germans and French cooks he credits with creating something that sounds an awful lot like the gefilte fish we know today, complete with stuffed pike, perch, and other large freshwater fish. "The first medieval record of this fish dish, gefuelten hechden (stuffed pike), was in a non-Jewish source in southern Germany around 1350, in the oldest German cookbook, Daz Buoch von Guoter Spise (The Book of Good Food)," he wrote. "The dish was popular among upper-class Catholics during Lent and other days when meat was forbidden."
Marks described the dish as poached, mashed fish flavored with sage, caraway seeds, saffron, salt, and pepper. Once the fish was stuffed, they'd set it on a wooden grill and roast it. Recipes for a similar stuffed fish dish started showing up shortly thereafter in French manuscripts in which ground almonds and saffron were mixed into the flesh.
“In the case of medieval German Jewry, these stuffed fish recipes—ultimately referred to as gefilte fish—filled a need that was both economic and religiously appropriate,” says Dr. Nora Rubel, Chair of the Department of Religion & Classics and a Professor in Jewish Studies at the University of Rochester, as well as a co-owner of the kosher vegan Jewish deli, Grass Fed. “Jews have traditionally eaten fish on the Sabbath, and due to prohibitions against ‘sorting’ or ‘selecting,’ bones must be removed prior to sundown on Friday. This style of ‘filled’ or ‘stuffed’ fish allowed for Sabbath consumption and, with the addition of bread or matzo meal as a binder, allowed for the cook to stretch the fish to go further and feed more people.”
A Dish Made of Prohibitions
Gefilte fish’s shift from a relatively commonplace Gentile dish to the centerpiece of Ashkenazi Jewish holiday meals began in that medieval period after the first stuffed fish recipe was recorded in that German cookbook. Andás Koener, a cultural and culinary historian who focuses primarily on the lives of pre-Shoah Hungarian Jewry, explains how gefilte fish fit into the traditions of religiously observant Jews––if they embraced the dish at all.
“According to these Jews, many of whom were of Galician origin [contemporary Poland and Ukraine], it was forbidden to remove the bones from the fish, since this was equivalent to ‘borer,’ that is separating undesirable bits from a mixture of edible and inedible things––an activity forbidden on Saturdays,” says András Koerner. Whether or not an Ashkenazi Jewish family embraced gefilte fish depended largely on where they or their ancestors came from. Jews from Poland, Ukraine, Russia, and parts of northeastern Hungary more strictly observed borer and therefore made gefilte fish.
Koerner, like Marks, concludes that Jews likely adopted this style of fish preparation centuries ago from their non-Jewish neighbors––although poached carp or pike served warm or cold and jellied in slices was more commonly the first course of Shabbat dinner. By the 17th century, Jews started preparing dumplings made from a mixture of chopped fish, matzo meal, and eggs instead of the more labor-intensive stuffed fish. But they weren’t calling the dish gefilte fish until the end of the nineteenth century. Yiddish-speaking Jews immigrating from Poland, Russia, and Ukraine were responsible for introducing the dish to Hungary and then to the United States.
History shows that Ashkenazi Jews adapted a number of dishes from their Gentile neighbors. But there's a simple reason why gefilte fish specifically was ready-made to become the focal point of holiday meals.
The tradition of starting the Shabbat meal with a fish dish came with symbolic motives. “Fish is an important symbol in other religions, too, but in Judaism more kinds of symbolic meaning are attached to it than to any other food with the exception of bread,” Koerner writes in his 2019 award-winning book, Jewish Cuisine in Hungary. “It is not only a symbol of the arrival of the Messianic Age, but also of good fortune, prosperity, and fertility.”
Eating fish has been connected to celebrating Shabbat since the Babylonian Talmud was compiled in approximately 500 C.E. Strictly speaking, the Talmud is a compilation of Rabbinic text that discusses Jewish civil and ceremonial law. In layman's terms, it's a wildly meticulous, thorough argument between rabbis.
“It is not only a symbol of the arrival of the Messianic Age, but also of good fortune, prosperity, and fertility.”
Koerner traced the Jewish connection to fish in the Talmud as well, referring to passages in the Talmud (Bava Batra or Baba Bathra 74b and 75a) that say there will be a righteous feast with great joy at the dawn of this age.
The main course at this feast? The flesh of a giant sea monster or fish, called The Leviathan. And so it was important for religious Jews to eat fish at least once a week to get that sweet taste of the world to come. If high-quality fish wasn’t available, they’d eat falshe fish (Yiddish for “mock fish”) made of ground chicken or veal.
Coming to America
So far the dish we’ve been describing would usually appear on the Shabbat table as a whole fish, head and all. But most Jews today think of gefilte fish as baked or poached dumplings with a sliced carrot on top. Others might conjure images of a Manischewitz glass jar containing mysterious balls floating about in a jellied broth that resembles Bill Murray drenched in the ectoplasm goo from a scene in Ghostbusters.
The popularity and prevalence of gefilte fish itself––and the ball or dumpling shape––is thanks to Ashkenazi Jewish immigration to the United States. Prior to immigration, some cooks had already begun bypassing stuffing the fish and instead poached the spiced mixture as a sort of fish dumpling which, centuries later, would become the dominant form of gefilte fish (presumably due to easier preparation) among Eastern European Jews.
“These fish balls show up in early Jewish American cookbooks starting in the late nineteenth century but are not referred to as ‘filled fish’ until their inclusion in the 1901 pamphlet, The Way to a Man’s Heart: The Settlement Cook Book,” explains Rubel. “In a few later editions, they are called ‘Lincoln House Fish Balls’ after the name of the Milwaukee settlement house, where they were a popular dish. The 1965 printing finally named this dish ‘gefilte fish.’”
Still, it’s not even the dumpling form that leaves some Jews with chills running down their spines. It’s the aforementioned, mass-produced Manischewitz variety that brings a mix of horror or nostalgic delight, depending on who you’re asking.
The Cincinnati-based company first made their name in the late 19th Century producing matzah––the cracker-like flat unleavened flatbread primarily used during the Jewish holiday of Passover. It wasn’t until the 1940s that they started selling jarred gefilte fish.
“Known for its mass-production of notably ‘Jewish’ food items, such as matzo and kosher wine, the appearance of Manischewitz gefilte fish on grocery shelves in the kosher aisle cemented its identity as a Jewish food in the minds of American consumers,” explains Rubel.
None of this is to say that the 20th Century brought about the downfall of gefilte fish, in terms of quality and popularity. South of the US border, gefilte fish was evolving into a specialty reborn.
Gefilte Fish à la Veracruzana
Among Mexican-Jews, gefilte fish never elicited the same love-hate relationship as it does in the US. That’s because the dish, brought over by Ashkenazi Jews as well, evolved differently.
Pati Jinich, the Jewish-Mexican chef, cookbook author, and host of PBS’ James Beard award-winning Pati’s Mexican Table, plans to explore gefilte fish in her next season. Her grandparents, like Lebanese, African, Asian, and other Jewish immigrants, entered the country through the state of Veracruz along the Gulf of Mexico.
Jinich explains that Veracruz is known for a specific style of cooked fish that’s been made for centuries. The fish is red snapper––a sweeter, warmer fish as opposed to the Ashkenazi staples of carp, herring, and pike––cooked in a tomato sauce that’s thickened, seasoned, and cooked with onion and garlic; then capers, olives, and pepperoncini chiles in brine get thrown into the dish.
Instead of sticking solely with the traditional preparation of cold, Old World gefilte fish, Jinich’s grandmother, Esther, learned to cover her red snapper gefilte fish dumplings in this hot, delicious Veracruzana sauce. It’s gefilte fish a la Veracruzana.
“It looks better, it’s warmer, it’s kinder, and better seasoned,” says Jinich, noting that there are other Mexican-Jewish gefilte fish adaptations out there. But one aspect remained constant from Europe to Mexico: “The essence of it being a Jewish food of celebration, whether it’s for Shabbat or a holiday table.”
Nowadays, gefilte fish is undergoing something of a revival. Jeffrey Yoskowitz and Liz Alpern are Ashkenazi Jewish chefs and co-authors of The Gefilte Manifesto, celebrating and reimagining Old World recipes. The cover of their 2016 cookbook features a plate of traditionally stuffed gefilte fish with the recipe included within its pages.
Even Jewish vegetarians are getting into the game, struggling to imagine their Passover table without that pale little dumpling topped with a slice of carrot. Both vegan and vegetarian recipes are popping up in an attempt to recreate the fishy texture, flavor, and appearance––sans fish, of course.
The fact that gefilte fish stems from a non-Jewish background is something that sounds surprising on the surface but really isn’t when you think about it for more than a second. Every dish evolved from something else long before humans started writing down recipes. Few foods come with an undisputed birthdate. Tomato sauce wasn’t always a staple of Italian cuisine. The Irish may have 90 different ways to refer to potatoes, but they weren’t noshing on the root vegetable until Sir Walter Raleigh brought them from the Americas in the late 16th century. Even the beloved bagel has evolved from a Polish gift for women after childbirth in the 17th century to a Jewish-American cliché. Palestinian cookbook author Reem Kasis even recently unearthed potential Arabic origins of the bagel, though some have respectfully disputed the claim.
The point isn’t to declare ownership of these dishes, gefilte fish included. Like Yoskowitz, I find it more interesting to see how the dishes have evolved and morphed over time. Case in point, Yoskowitz explained that since Jews were so active in the carp trade, they became associated with what we think of as gefilte fish. Poles and neighboring communities, however, called it Jewish-style carp.
“It was shocking for me to learn upon visits to Poland and Lithuania that nearly everyone eats ‘Jewish-style carp’ for Christmas or the Feast of the Seven Fishes, and that many families even keep a carp in their bathtub or have that in their family history,” says Yoskowitz. “It made me appreciate just how connected Jews of the region were to the regional food culture.”