What do you get when you combine the need to feed a family cheaply, with a religious prohibition on picking the bones out of fish?
The answer: if you were Jewish and living in Europe 500 years ago, was gefilte fish.
What Is Gefilte Fish?
Gefilte fish (pronounced "guh-FIL-tuh") started out as a forcemeat of finely chopped fish, onions, egg, bread and seasonings which was blended together, stuffed back into the skin of the fish and then poached in a rich stock. Indeed, gefilte is the Yiddish word for "stuffed."
Over time, the step of stuffing the mixture into the skin of the fish was abandoned, and instead the forcemeat would be formed into balls and then poached, or shaped into logs and then baked.
Today, gefilte fish is eaten more out of tradition than economic necessity, but the religious reasons are as valid now as they were back then.
Religious Origins of Gefilte Fish
Like so much of Jewish cuisine, gefilte fish owes its existence to the Biblical prohibition on doing any form of work on the Sabbath. And among observant Jews, the definition of "work" includes a wide range of culinary activities, including cooking, mixing and kneading.
Also prohibited is the act of sorting, known in Hebrew as borer, which includes separating inedible parts of a food from the edible parts. Thus picking bones out of fish is prohibited on the Sabbath.
Which meant that, to eat fish on the Sabbath, which in Central and Eastern Europe at that time was the cheapest form of protein available, it was necessary for the bones to be removed ahead of time. Moreover, increasing the amount of bread crumbs in the mixture helped stretch the protein, making it even more economical.
Likewise, mixing, shaping and cooking the gefilte fish in advance, and serving it cold or at room temperature, satisfies the prohibition of cooking on the Sabbath.
Preparing Gefilte Fish
Traditionally, gefilte fish is made from fish such as carp, whitefish or pike (note: to be considered Kosher, fish must have scales and fins), or a combination thereof. To this would be added onions, egg, matzoh meal or crumbs, along with salt, sugar and plenty of black pepper.
Separately, a large pot of rich stock is prepared from bones (chicken as well as fish), along with fish heads, carrots, celery, onions, as well as seasonings. Chicken bones would be essential, since fish bones themselves wouldn't contain enough collagen for the stock to jell when cooled. This is an important feature, since gefilte fish is traditionally served with some of the jellied stock.
Once the forcemeat has been ground to the proper consistency it is formed into balls and added to the simmering stock, where it would gently simmer for an hour or two until it reaches a firm but yielding consistency—firm enough to hold together, without being tough or rubbery.
Finally, the balls are cooled in the stock and later served with some of the jellied stock, a beet-horseradish condiment and a garnish of shredded or chopped carrot.
Gefilte Fish Variations
By the 19th century, gefilte fish was a staple dish among Jewish families across Europe, and it had begun to take on regional differences. For instance, in Poland, it was prepared as a sweet dish, whereas in Lithuania and Russia, it was heavily spiced with black pepper.
The next major development came in the United States after World War II with the advent of widespread marketing and manufacturing of prepackaged and bottled Kosher foods.
According to myjewishlearning.com:
By the 1950s, gefilte fish had become “the Jewish national dish,” according to The Jewish Home Beautiful, a popular book published by The Women’s League of the United Synagogue of America. Served at temple dinners, philanthropic fundraisers and lifecycle events from bar mitzvahs to weddings, gefilte fish migrated from a holiday staple to a Jewish cultural icon.
Today, gefilte fish is enjoying somewhat of a renaissance thanks to a re-imagining of the traditional dish by modern Jewish chefs who have added a contemporary twist by including ingredients such as salmon and steelhead trout.
Other variations, such as a Mediterranean gefilte fish, include olive oil, tomatoes, raisins and pepper flakes as well as spices like cinnamon and cumin.