Last night I made gefilte fish for the first time. I am feeling weirdly emotional about it. This post is an attempt to process that.
Gefilte fish, if you have never heard of it, is a kind of poached fish ball boiled with onions and carrot, traditionally served with chrayne, a sauce made from horseradish, vinegar and beetroot. It originated among the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe and, although I am not entirely sure how true this is, is said to be a clever way around the religious prohibition against all forms of work on Shabbos (the Sabbath), one such form being the act of separating things from other things. This includes separating bones from flesh, which basically meant Jews could never eat fish on Saturdays, an unfortunate situation in places where fish is one of your main available sources of protein.
Since all bones are necessarily removed in the process of making gefilte fish, plus it can (and should) be served cold, it is therefore an ideal Shabbos delicacy, since you are also not allowed to cook. Actually you can, so long as you neither turn a fire on or off - which is Deeply Odd And Quite Sexist when you think about it - is cooking not itself considered work? - and there’s a whole recipe - Tscholent - involving putting an oven on a very low heat on Friday afternoon and leaving it going overnight to get a hot meal the next day. It’s complicated. I’m not even religious. Anyway, this post is about gefilte fish, not tscholent.
Gefilte fish is also extremely delicious and has become a staple Jewish food among Ashkenazis for almost all occasions. As I was growing up, my Nana and Mum would make gefilte fish for Pesach, to break the fast with on Yom Kippur, and, now and again, just because, as a starter for the Friday evening Shabbos meal. Later, as an adult, my Mum would reliably and without fail deliver or have me come and collect a batch of gefilte fish every year at Pesach, which I would usually devour within 48 hours.
There are some men who would starve if it weren’t for the women around them seeing to it that they got fed, and I have striven Not To Be Like That my whole adult life. I do most of the cooking at home, including, increasingly, various traditional Jewish staples such as chicken soup and so on. But somehow I never got around to gefilte fish. Or chrayne for that matter. (Don’t forget the chrayne. The chrayne is very important.)
One of my prized possessions is my late Nana’s 1958 copy of Florence Greenberg’s Jewish Cookery Book, but like so many other recipes in there, the gefilte fish recipe is just weird. Ground almonds? Celery? Fresh parsley? Boiling the fish to make stock, straining, reserving, then making up the balls - with an indeterminate quantity of matzo meal to bind - before gently returning them to the stock and seeing how far the smell of boiling fish could be spread over the next hour or two? It looked very complicated.
Also, if Mum or Nana had ever put parsley in gefilte fish, it had somehow dissolved without trace. You can usually tell if something has parsley in it. The bits of parsley are a dead giveaway.
I believe - and I don’t know why, because I haven’t a trace of supporting evidence - that most Jewish households in the UK during the 1950s and 1960s had a copy of Greenberg, but I also suspect that many recipes in it were widely ignored, or, in practice, altered beyond recognition if used at all. The important recipes in my copy are the ones in the back in my Nana’s handwriting. But this post isn’t about those.
A few months ago, B. and I finally left London and moved to St Leonards-on-Sea in East Sussex, a distance of around 50 or 60 miles away, depending how you count it. Whichever of those you go with, it is certainly not within Reasonable Gefilte Fish Delivery Or Collection range from my Mum.
There is little or no Jewish community in St Leonards, but it does have easy access to a number of excellent fishmongers and greengrocers. Last week, while buying eggs at the greengrocers I noticed that he was also selling horseradish, and remembered that I’d been meaning to make my own chrayne for years.
Chrayne is supposed to blow your head off. Proper chrayne will clear every cranial tube of fluid in one go, but in the good way, like the old Colmans English Mustard before they changed the recipe and nerfed it. With good chrayne, grumpy middle-aged and elderly Jews have for centuries complained bitterly about Certain Children leaving the lid off for too long, thus causing the potency to be lost due to exposure to oxygen in the air. (This is true. Do not leave the lid off the chrayne.) But shop-bought chrayne comes with the lid pre-emptively left off. It is insipid, more like beetroot jam than mustard, and hence pointless. Every year for the last several decades I have bought a jar of chrayne at Pesach to go with my Mum’s gefilte fish, and every year I have been disappointed with it. The chrayne, that is. Not the gefilte fish. To be clear: my Mum makes the best gefilte fish.
It would have been good if I’d remembered to pick up some horseradish while I was actually in the shop, but I went back the next day and got some.
“What are you planning to do with it?” asked the greengrocer.
“I’m going to make ch… horseradish sauce,” I told him, not yet feeling ready to have a conversation about Yiddish names for Ashkenazi Jewish condiments at the greengrocers.
“Oh, I’ll need some beetroots too.”
“They’re over there.”
I grabbed the beets, paid, and fled.
Chrayne is not hard to make. Here is Greenberg’s recipe:
Take 3 large cooked beetroots and 2 sticks horseradish, peel and grate them all and mix together. Sweeten to taste, and pour on as much malt vinegar as the mixture will absorb. Pot and tie down.
That’s what I should have done.
Instead I very stupidly used a random recipe from the internet which, in its attempt to put a sassy modern twist on chrayne, or antisemitism, or something, suggested a) using balsamic vinegar, b) adding a clove of garlic, and c) chopping the horseradish rather than grating it. All of these things - I can now exclusively reveal - are Very Very Wrong.
Worse than that, it turned out the beets I had bought in a hurry were pre-cooked, G-d knows how or in what. Literally every other vegetable in that shop is so lush, raw, fresh and organic you expect them to all burst into cartoon four part harmony at any moment. But no, I’d managed to buy something pre-processed there. Still, it saved cooking and peeling the beets myself.
The result was a chrayne almost but not entirely identical to the sad shop-bought jars from Sainsbury’s. It tasted of vinegar, garlic, beetroot and disappointment. Adding an extra inch of horseradish root - grated this time, not chopped, did at least give it a little bit of a kick, but not much. Also, I now had a good half-pint of it, so I put it into some jars, put the jars in the fridge, and hoped that maybe the mixture would magically settle overnight into something a bit more chrayne-like.
And sat there, unable to stop thinking about gefilte fish, deeply annoyed with myself for not having already bought some fish to make it with.
It was 3pm on Easter Sunday. Most of the shops in town were definitely closed for Easter, including the large supermarket round the corner. What would be the the chances of finding an open fishmongers at that time?
Non-zero, as it turned out. RX Fisheries, more or less on the beach right at the opposite end of neighbouring Hastings, were going to be open until 4.30pm. If I left immediately (I don’t drive and the bike needs a service before I take it out on the road again) I’d just about make it in time. Plus, it should be a fairly pleasant walk along the coast.
Which it was, though with Easter Sunday I’d picked the worst possible day in April to do this, and the Hastings coast got more and more packed with tourists the closer I got to Old Town. Families, screaming kids, chips, ice-cream, an entirely random classic car meet, more screaming kids, more screaming families, more ice-cream and chips, fishmonger.
Then the same in reverse.
It was quite trippy.
An hour or so later I was walking back along the coast with about half a kilo of fresh cod fillet and half a kilo of fresh bream fillet bouncing around in a small blue carrier bag. I was still a little concerned, though, as I had no idea what the hell I was about to do - the Greenberg recipe seemed awfully tricky and I had lost faith in looking up recipes for this kind of thing on the internet.
While walking along, I remembered that the last time I’d spoken to my Mum about the hypothetical possibility of me maybe making gefilte fish myself finally, she’d mentioned something about a secret ingredient, something that Nana had taught her to add to it, which was the reason why their gefilte fish was consistently better than any other gefilte fish of different provenance. I couldn’t remember what it was, though she had told me. Could it possibly be the ground almonds that Greenberg mentions? Surely not. That’s just weird. Who puts ground almonds in gefilte fish? Also, surely I’d have remembered if it was that.
Then I remembered that it was 2023 and I could just call and ask her while walking, so I did.
Turns out it’s sugar.
My Mum was very clear: ground almonds are nonsense. Celery is not required. There’s nothing wrong with parsley - she has been known to use it now and again, but it definitely isn’t necessary. And certainly, Greenberg’s hare-brained idea of pre-boiling the unminced fish to make fish stock to then make balls and poach them in the stock is way over-complicating it. Nana, for all her many talents, was not one for complicated recipes. You just chop the carrots and onion, set it to boil in well seasoned water, make up the fish balls with egg and matzo meal, and then gently poach them in the water for a couple of hours, over which time it turns to stock anyway. There’s no need.
But the key thing is to put a few teaspoons of sugar in the water as well, and season to taste as it goes. Whatever the stock tastes like, so will the gefilte.
We had some discussion on the subject of how the hell I was going to mince the fish without a mincer, and she reminded me that she usually gets the fishmongers to do it. RX Fisheries were long closed and a half-hour’s walk away at this point, so I said I’d probably be fine doing it by hand with a knife.
“Oh, my Bubba used to do it that way,” she said, “but it’s much easier if you just get it pre-minced.” Amid visions of my tiny great-grandmother, who I never met but have seen photos of, determinedly and resolutely determinely mincing raw fish armed only with a knife, we agreed that I definitely would not use the food processor instead, because that would probably over-mince it, at which point I’d arrived at the Co-op and it was time to verify that they had no fresh parsley, which they never do.
Obviously they might have had fish as well but I didn’t look. I refuse to buy supermarket fish when I live on the coast now and there are Fresh From The Boat More Or Less fishmongers around. That would be ridiculous.
And home, where an excited B. kindly volunteered to chaperone my My First Gefilte Making Experience.
Also, where I learned that asking fishmongers to take the skin off for you is a thing you can do, and that, using special Fishmonger Tools for the purpose, they indeed will. This is useful information, especially if you are using a recipe that ideally calls for the fish to be both deboned and deskinned.
Oh well. I made the executive decision that skin-on Would Be Just Fine, and after chopping the carrots and onions, putting them on to boil (seasoned, with sugar), and beating the eggs, started setting about the fish with a knife.
I try and keep our kitchen knives sharp, but… long story short… Dear Reader (and lets face it, Mum, if you’ve managed to read down this far) I ended up using the food processor. I was gentle with it, and it was fine.
Not using all the egg - on B.s instructions, in her capacity as Person Who Has Not Made Gefilte Fish Before Specifically But Has Made Fish Balls Which Are Not Dissimilar - turned out to be a good thing too, because it wasn’t necessary.
And the gefilte fish turned out ok. Bit bland, but recognisably gefilte fish. They didn’t come apart in the pan or anything, they cooled down nicely overnight, and I am about to have some more, because I’ve been rambling about gefilte fish for over 2000 words now and I don’t know about you but it’s making me hungry.
They’re not nearly as good as my Mum’s gefilte fish of course and never will be. Or Nana’s. But still. Gefilte fish. Gefilte fish is very important.
I’ve an ex-girlfriend who sneered at gefilte fish. My Mum didn’t like her, and I didn’t understand why at the time. I get it now.
Oh and the chrayne turned out fine too, after a sit overnight, though I’ll make that better next time now I know what to do.
I feel I’ve made a right gefilte fish of processing why I’m feeling so emotional about it though.