The Sad Demise of the Gefilte Fish

As the Jewish festival of Passover approaches, our thoughts turn to fish

Moshe Forman
Apr 5 · 7 min read
Gefilte Fish By Mushki Brichta (Wikimedia Commons)

It was the Chraime that did it!

As soon as our Passover Seder (celebratory dinner) was opened up to the North African member of our extended family, the Gefilte Fish was doomed. For years, faithful to my Polish/Latvian heritage, Gefilte Fish was served on every festive occasion. However, for the past few Seder nights, every diner, except myself, eschewed the bland carp cutlets in favour of the hot and spicy Chraime, a Moroccan dish of Mediterranean fish poached in a hot tomato sauce. As I watched them lick the fiery red sauce off their plates, I would remonstrate that Gefilte Fish is just the Jewish version of Sushi — but it fell on deaf ears (think about it — insipid fish, coupled with a hot horseradish or wasabi sauce — it really is the same thing). This year, I have thrown in the towel; there will be no Gefilte Fish taking up the valuable real estate on our table.

it seems eminently sensible to eat a fish if you’ve gone to all that bother of catching one

I was reminded of an item in the British media about the manager of the Field Farm Fisheries in Oxfordshire, who put up a sign banning Polish and Eastern Block people from fishing in his waters. There was, of course, a hullabaloo about this blatant act of cultural insensitivity (definitely a candidate for some diversity awareness course). Actually, the sign also included a ban on children and dogs, so for the dogaphile Brits, it could have been the canine prohibition that caused the most outrage (banning children is not uncommon in the UK, so I doubt if that was an issue). The reason for the Polish ban was that the Polish fishermen would catch the fish and eat them, when every well-bred Englishman knows you should throw them back. Now between me and you, it seems eminently sensible to eat a fish if you’ve gone to all that bother of catching one. It seems to me to be a “mad dogs and Englishmen” moment of eccentricity to throw them back. Not many people know this, but many of Britain’s river and lake species are in fact edible. The Perch is not unlike the St. Peter’s fish, native to the Sea of Galilee, while the Pike and even the sardine-sized Gudgeon are, apparently, most agreeable to the palate. Despite this, an Englishman regards eating a freshwater fish (except for Salmon and Trout) in the same way as he regards a Korean eating a dog. Probably edible, but just not done.

…the Brits never developed a taste for the freshwater varieties.

Historically, as an island nation, the British have had an abundant supply of sea fish, and even in pre-refrigeration days, they could be got to market while still fresh. As a result, the Brits never developed a taste for the freshwater varieties. Not so the Poles; our great grandparents, in their shtetls far from the sea, along with their gentile neighbours, had no recourse other than to eat the local pond fish. Sea fish had to be heavily salted or schmaltzed, to preserve them on their long journey inland. So Polish expatriates living in the UK, missing the flavour of fresh pond fish, are now going fishing for it.

I was pleasantly surprised, on a recent trip to the UK, to discover a Polish deli in, of all places, Harlow. Now Harlow, the Essex equivalent of the Israeli development town, is not normally considered to be a centre of Yiddishkeit (Jewish culture) but the selection of Herring in all its pickled, schmaltzed, and salted configurations would have made my Polish grandfather’s eyes water, at a price that was a fraction of that at a Jewish deli in London. (To be fair, it was later explained to me by a somewhat defensive proprietor, that the higher cost is due to the kosher supervision).

…the quintessential British dish, Fish and Chips, was a Jewish invention

It is not only on our seder table that the Sephardi fish that ousted the Ashkenazi version. It happened on a national scale in Britain. For whilst the Gefilte Fish and Herring beloved by the Polish Jews remained strictly niche products, the fried fish introduced by the Portuguese and Spanish Jews went, to use a modern phrase, viral. For you see, the quintessential British dish, Fish and Chips, was a Jewish invention (or at least the fish part of it was). The idea of covering a fish in batter and frying it in oil had never occurred to the Brits, until the descendants of the Jews expelled from the Iberian peninsula arrived in the UK. In Victorian London, one of the first Fish and Chip shops actually advertised their wares as “Fish Cooked in the Jewish Style.”

…Jewish Lisbon meets Anglican Oldham

There is a claim that the chip was invented in 1860 in Tommyfield Market, in the old Lancashire town of Oldham. If that be true, we can see Fish and Chips as the first example of fusion cuisine; Jewish Lisbon meets Anglican Oldham. Although to be quite honest, I’m not quite convinced of the validity of Oldham’s claim. The plaque which commemorates the event also claims that this marks the start of the Fast Food industries. My suspicion is that they are planning to sue McDonald's for trillions of dollars in royalties. The fact that the chips are depicted in a fast food style French Fries type carton, as opposed to being wrapped in newspaper, is a dead giveaway. If they do sue the fast food vendors for copyright infringement, I will countersue for all the health issues it caused to millions of consumers. Should be worth a million or two.

If the famous British chippy is a Jewish innovation, and a Sephardi one at that, one could ask the question, why are there not Fish and Chip shops in Israel? The answer is probably that you just can’t get Cod or Haddock in Israel (unless you pay an arm and a leg for expensive imported frozen fish). Mediterranean fish just don’t lend themselves to being deep fried in batter. There are some small beams of light, however, and I can even claim some reflected glory; the sons of some expat Mancunian friends of mine have a food stall at the Tel-Aviv port that sells the traditional Fish and Chips at the weekend (they obviously have a secret supplier of the elusive cod).

…Jews have long known that fish is brain food.

The Jewish propensity for eating fish had not gone unnoticed by Victorian members of the medical profession. A prominent physician wrote a thesis that the Jews’ energy and high intelligence came from the fact that they ate a lot of fish. This is interesting for two reasons. Firstly, it shows that the Jewish immigrants to the UK during the second half of the 19th century, while still a poor and struggling community were seen as industrious and clever. Secondly, it shows that the health benefits of Omega 3 were known long before the onset of modern science, even if the nature of the chemical remained a mystery. Not long ago, one of the education authorities in the UK proposed giving school kids Omega 3 capsules on a daily basis to improve their cognitive skills. Any Jewish mother could have told them that centuries ago, for Jews have long known that fish is brain food. I suppose they know that because they are clever from all that fish they eat.

Maybe the British will need to start eating their freshwater fish...

Fish are an ongoing source of irritation to many Brits in their troubled relationship with their neighbours across the English Channel. During the early stages of the Brexit negotiations, the British Government capitulated very quickly on the issue of fishing rights around Britain’s coastline. Fishing, even if restored to its former glory, is actually a small industry in the general economic scheme of things, which is why the issue was so lightly conceded, but there is a strong emotional element that the politicians failed to take into account. Maybe the British will need to start eating their freshwater fish after all.

There is not much fishing going on in Israel’s coastal waters, either. I still go to Jaffa of a Friday morning and buy fresh fish. It used to be that the fish on offer was whatever the fishing boats had unloaded that morning. But with pollution and overfishing in the Mediterranean, it is more likely to be whatever the cargo planes had unloaded at Ben-Gurion airport. Salmon from Norway, Grey Mullet and Bream from Greece, alongside the offerings of Israel’s fish farms.

…next time you tuck into a piece of fish, be aware that you are performing a holy act.

There was a strike of the fish farms a few years ago and pandemonium broke out at Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda Market, as desperate consumers scrambled hopelessly for their Shabbat (Sabbath) fish. One distraught shopper, interviewed on the evening news, cried out in anguish that he would have to celebrate the day of rest without the mitzvah of eating fish. Now, while aware of the obvious benefits of nutrition and flavour, I never realized that eating fish was a mitzvah (a religious injunction to perform good deeds). That means that, with all my fish consumption, I’m more religiously observant than I had previously thought. So, next time you tuck into a piece of fish, be aware that you are performing a holy act. I’m not sure that eating a chip is similarly sanctimonious, although the worshipful residents of Oldham will no doubt claim it is.

On that positive note, I’m off to find a good recipe for Chraime.

And to all who celebrate, a happy and kosher Pesach, whatever fish is on your table.

One Table, One World

People coming from different cultural backgrounds sharing seats at the table to dine, to laugh, to cook, to heal and most of all to share the stories of their unique journeys all over the world.

Moshe Forman

Written by

When I’m not a poet, novelist, or writer of short stories, I’m a writer of creative non-fiction exploring Self, Food, Society and History. www.mosheforman.com

One Table, One World

People coming from different cultural backgrounds sharing seats at the table to dine, to laugh, to cook, to heal and most of all to share the stories of their unique journeys all over the world.

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