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Gefilte fish (/ /; from Yiddish: געפֿילטע פֿיש, German: gefüllter Fisch "stuffed fish") is an Ashkenazi Jewish dish made from a poached mixture of ground boned fish, such as carp, whitefish or pike, which is typically eaten as an appetizer.
Although the dish historically consisted of a minced-fish forcemeat stuffed inside the fish skin, as its name implies, since the 19th century the skin has commonly been omitted and the seasoned fish is formed into patties similar to quenelles or fish balls. They are popular on Shabbat and Holidays such as Passover, although they may be consumed throughout the year.
Traditionally, carp, pike, mullet, or whitefish were used to make gefilte fish, but more recently other fish with white flesh such as Nile Perch have been used, and there is a pink variation using salmon. There are even vegetarian variations.
Ingredients require selecting a fish (preferably a fresh water fish such as carp or whitefish) that is preferably at least 3 kilograms (6.6 lb) in weight. Also required are 1 kilogram (2.2 lb) of brown cooking onions, salt, pepper, and 3 to 5 eggs. Up to 200 millilitres (6.8 US fl oz) of vegetable oil (traditionally sunflower oil) may also be added if the fish is lean.
The fish is deboned and the flesh mixed with ingredients, including bread crumbs or matza meal, and fried onion. Cooking takes as much as 3 hours in traditional recipes, although in modern recipes the cooking time is often briefer.
The resultant log-shaped mixture is sliced, and usually served cold. Virtually always, each slice is topped with a slice of carrot, with a horseraddish mixture called khrayn (see below) on the side.
Due to the general poverty of the Jewish population in Eastern Europe, the 'economic' recipe for the above also may have included extra ground and soaked matza meal or bread crumbs creating many more "spare" fish balls. This form of preparation eliminated the need for picking out fish bones at the table, and "stretched" the fish further, so that even poor, but often large, families could enjoy fish on Shabbat. Not only is picking bones religiously prohibited on the Sabbath, but many of the commonly used fish such as carp are exceptionally bony and difficult to eat easily in whole form.
Gefilte fish may be slightly sweet or savory. Preparation of gefilte fish with sugar or black pepper is considered an indicator of whether a Jewish community was Galitzianer (with sugar) or Litvak (with pepper), hence the boundary separating northern from southern East Yiddish has been dubbed "the Gefilte Fish Line".
The post-WW2 method of making gefilte fish commercially takes the form of patties or balls, or utilizes a wax paper casing around a "log" of ground fish, which is then poached or baked. This product is sold in cans and glass jars, and packed in jelly made from fish broth. Sodium is a relatively high 220–290 mg/serving. Low-salt, low-carb, low-cholesterol, sugar-free, and kosher varieties are available. The U.S. Patent #3,108,882 "Method for Preparing an Edible Fish Product" for this jelly, which allowed mass-market distribution of gefilte fish, was granted on October 29, 1963 to Monroe Nash. Gefilte fish are also sold frozen in 'logs'.
There are two versions of khreyn horseradish: the Russian version and the "Polish" version (also prevalent in Belarus, western Ukraine, and Lithuania). Russian khreyn is prepared as close to service as possible, and generally is not kept for more than 2–3 days. The root is peeled, but preferably not washed. While grating the root finely, small amounts of the gratings are placed into a prepared glass jar with cold water to prevent exposing the root to air. Wearing gloves is strongly encouraged while handling the grated root. When the grating is completed, the mixture, if intended for service in the next 2–3 days, should have the consistency of a thick paste. Sugar and salt are added to taste, considering that fresh khreyn is generally very sharp. Grated beetroot can be substituted for sugar to give the garnish colour when served on gefilte fish. Some lemon juice can also be added. Left-over pieces of the root are added to the bottom of the jar. The version served by Russians has sour cream added, but this is usually prohibited due to kashruts restrictions on not consuming meat and milk products in same meal. At Jewish meals, the khreyn is therefore served as-is. In the "Polish" recipe, vinegar is added, and the product can be stored sometimes for weeks, or longer, though by comparison with the "Russian" recipe the taste will be milder, particularly over time. Due to the sharpness of the Russian recipe, it is usually served as an appetizer, in small quantities (1 tsp./5 ml) over the carrot slices, while the relatively mild "Polish" recipe can be served as a side dish (1 Tbsp./15 ml), or in a separate serving dish.
Among religiously observant Jews, gefilte fish has become a traditional Shabbat food to avoid borer, which is one of the 39 activities prohibited on Shabbat outlined in the Shulchan Aruch. Borer, literally "selection/choosing," would occur when one picks the bones out of the fish, taking "the chaff from within the food."
Where the stipulated head of the sheep is unobtainable for the Rosh Hashana meal, many use the gefilte fish, with the fish head served to the head of the family, usually the husband.