Gefilte Is Not the Only Fish in Sea

Photo by David Keep

Photo by David Keep

Why do we always have to serve fish for Passover?

I get this question every year from the non-pescatarian participants in our Seder. They clearly do not share my childhood memories of preparing for the holiday of matzahs.

When I was a kid, purchasing and preparing the fish was an unforgettable experience. Serving fish during the Seder is a tradition that goes back to the Talmudic Era (70 BCE). At that time, fish was an affordable specialty that would elevate any celebration. No Passover or Shabbat table was considered complete without it.

My grandmother Devorah kept the traditions of her native Poland her whole life. Even though she had a perfectly good refrigerator in her kitchen in Israel, we would purchase a live carp on the day before the Seder. When we brought the fish home, our bathtub would be half filled with water. The carp was allowed to swim there, while the children played with it. Due to Israel’s water shortages, the fish was the only one who was ever allowed to take a bath! The rest of us very conscientiously showered, using the minimum amount of water necessary.

When the time came, my father would take his heaviest wrench, and slam the fish on the head, killing it with one blow. Then, he would slice it open, and remove its intestines and organs. He would fillet the fish, extricating the delicate flesh from the spine and skin. Carps have lots of tiny bones, so getting them all out was a lot of work. After rinsing the fish, he would hand-grind it. Now it was good enough for savta Devorah’s gefilte fish!

Despite all the jokes about gefilte fish, I have to admit that I loved hers. She mixed the freshly ground fish with chopped almonds, eggs, matzah meal, salt, black pepper and just a touch of sugar. She prepared a broth with fish heads she had purchased from the fishmonger, carrots and onions. The fish balls were poached in this broth. When they were ready, the delicate patties were removed from the broth with a slotted spoon. My savta would arrange them on a serving platter, decorating each with a carrot medallion from the pot. The broth was strained into a glass jar, and both the fish and the broth were refrigerated until the next day. After all the symbolic foods of the Seder were eaten, Shulchan Orech or “the festive meal” was announced. The first course to be served was the gefilte fish.

Savta Devorah’s gefilte fish would have been very familiar to the Jewish housewives of New York’s Lower East Side at the beginning of the 20th century. Because the bulk of Jewish immigrants came to the United States from Eastern Europe, American Jews immediately associate Passover with gefilte fish.

Ashkenazi Jews do not have a monopoly over the consumption of fish during the Seder. This Passover, you can be adventurous by trying fish recipes from different Jewish communities around the world.

For something exotic, you may experiment with the flavors of the Jewish community of Bombay. Merchant traders from Baghdad founded this community about 250 years ago. They adopted the foods of India, and added influences from Arabia, Turkey, and Persia. Here is a recipe for sardina, a fish served cold for Shabbat and Passover. You may prepare it a day or two in advance, and keep it ready to serve in the refrigerator.

Sardinaphoto (17)

Adapted from “Indian-Jewish Cooking” by Mavis Hyman.

  • 2 lbs. fish fillet
  • curry powder
  • olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon tamarind concentrate
  • 2 mangoes, diced
  • 1 bunch scallion, chopped
  • 1 chili pepper, thinly sliced
  • salt
  • cashew nuts, shelled and toasted
  1. Sprinkle some curry powder and salt over the fish fillets.
  2. Heat the olive oil in a heavy frying pan.
  3. Fry the fish on both sides until it flakes easily.
  4. Place the fish in a large bowl, and allow it to cool to room temperature.
  5. Flake the fish with a fork.
  6. Mix in the mangoes, scallions, tamarind concentrate, and chili pepper.
  7. Adjust the seasoning.
  8. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate.
  9. Serve cold, garnished with cashew nuts.

One of the most ancient Jewish communities in the world is in Georgia, in the Caucasus. The Jews fled to Georgia during the Babylonian Exile, in the sixth Century BCE. Georgia is blessed with a mild climate and rich soil. Fruits, vegetables, and nuts grow abundantly, and are featured in Georgian cuisine. One of the most popular ways of preparing fish in Georgia is with a rich walnut sauce. It is served cold, garnished with pomegranate seeds.

Fish Satsivi

Adapted from Georgian Cuisine by T. Sulakvelidze.

  • lb. fish fillet
  • 1 cup shelled walnuts
  • 1/2 cup wine vinegar
  • 3 onions, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp. ground clove
  • 1/2 tsp. ground coriander
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 8 whole allspice berries
  • saffron
  • salt
  • dry chili pepper
  • ground black pepper
  • Khmeli-Suneli Georgian spice mix (optional)photo (15)
  • pomegranate seeds
  1. Place the fish fillets in a heavy pot. Cover them with cold water.
  2. Add the bay leaves and allspice berries.
  3. Bring the pot to a boil, and then simmer for 45 minutes.
  4. Remove the fish with a slotted spoon to a casserole dish.
  5. Place the walnuts, garlic, chili pepper, saffron, ground coriander and salt in a food processor.
  6. Grind the nut mixture.
  7. Empty the nut paste into a pot.
  8. Add just enough fish broth to get a creamy consistency.
  9. Add the chopped onions.
  10. Bring to a boil, and then simmer for 10 minutes.
  11. Add the vinegar, cinnamon, cloves, black pepper and Khmeli-Suneli.
  12. Simmer for an additional 10 minutes.
  13. Pour the sauce over the fish.
  14. Cover the casserole dish with plastic wrap and refrigerate.
  15. Serve cold, garnished with fresh pomegranate seeds.

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