The first course of the Rosh Hashanah holiday meal is often fish. Fish is symbolic of fruitfulness — “may we be fruitful and multiply like fish.” Fish is also a symbol of immortality, a good theme for the New Year.
Baked sheep’s head became a symbol for many Sephardic Jews for Rosh Hashanah dating back to the Middle Ages. Some groups merely serve sheep brains or tongue or a fish with head, probably for the same reason, for fruitfulness and prosperity, and new wishes for the new year for knowledge or leadership. It also reminds them that they should be at the “head” or a leader, rather than at the tail, or a follower, in the struggle for life.
In Salonica, Greece, for example, the father is served the head of the fish, while the eyes, cheeks and brains of the fish are distributed around the table.
Yemenite Jews serve a salted fish head. Some Moroccan Jews also serve cooked lamb’s head as an appetizer for Rosh Hashanah, once again the symbol of being at the head, a leader.
Jews of Tunisia continue the same idea of wanting people to be smart, as symbolized by the head or brain, by serving a cake made with chicken and calves brains.
Among Ashkenazim, the symbol of fish is realized in gefilte fish. Gefilte fish is thought to have originated in the Middle Ages among Jews who were poor and who wanted a special dish to serve for Shabbat. “Gefilte” means stuffed and originally it was a way of stretching a small amount of food. They would take the fish (usually pike), mix it with eggs and matzah meal and stuff it back into the fish skin before cooking.
Gefilte fish seems to have migrated from the Jews of Germany to Poland, possibly earlier, but surely around the 17th century, where it was made into ball shapes rather than stuffed inside the fish skin.
It was also the Polish Jews who added sugar to the recipe in the mid-19th century to give the dish a better taste. Sugar was attractive, it was a source of energy and it provided a contrast to their daily diet of sour foods.
It was the Russian Jews who began the idea of eating gefilte fish with horseradish, which appears to be the only condiment created by Ashkenazic Jews.
Today, you can learn more about the humble gefilte fish in the book “The Gefilte Manifesto” by Jeffrey Yoskowitz and Liz Alper in 2016.
A manifesto is a written statement that describes the policies, goals and opinions of a person or group. But what kind of manifesto can you write about gefilte fish?
The book’s introduction alternates between Yoskowitz and Alper as they discuss how they grew up and got into the business of gefilte fish revival with a friend, Jackie Lilinshtein, first for local shops then for stores around the country. This developed into pickles, horseradish, borscht and more. They then discuss the basics of Ashkenazi cooking, what the book is really all about.
The book came together when Yoskowitz, a trained pickler who worked as an entrepreneur and consultant for small businesses, met Alpert, who had worked with Jewish cookbook and cooking maven, Joan Nathan, then curated and cooked for pop-up events and boutique shops.
Together, Yoskowitz and Alper founded The Gefilteria, a Brooklyn business that reimagines new Jewish classics. In “The Gefilte Manifesto,” the authors decided to focus on recipes “that tell the story of a rich ethnic cuisine” (Ashkenazi) using “an old approach to a new way of eating.”
There are about 100 recipes enhanced by more than 100 color photographs of food and more.
The book ends with sample menus, leftover adventures, water bath canning, resources, notes and a bibliography.
There is no doubt this cookbook is not only creative, but also, all of the recipes have introductory remarks (which I personally love), ingredients are bold face and (my favorite in a cookbook) numbered instructions.
This is the cookbook to give to anyone who is nostalgic for their family recipes, for traditional, old-world, Ashkenazi recipes, and who will enjoy revitalizing them for today’s families.
I would be remiss if I didn’t include Yoskowitz’s and Alper’s recipe for gefilte fish!
Poached Gefilte Quenelles
Heads, bones and tails from a fish
1 tablespoon kosher salt
2 coarsely chopped onions
4 medium carrots
3 tablespoons sugar
4 quarts water
1. Place the fish parts, salt, onions, carrots, sugar and water in a large stockpot and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to maintain a simmer, cover and simmer for at least 45 minutes before poaching the quenelles. Skim off any foam that rises to the surface.
2. Wet your hands and form the gefilte fish mixture into about 10 quenelles the size of an egg, with a similarly oblong shape. They will expand as they cook.
3. Place them one by one into the poaching liquid. Make sure the heat is on low and cover the pot. Poach for 30 minutes. Remove the quenelles with a slotted spoon and place them in a bowl. Spoon enough poaching liquid over to cover the quenelles. Let cool slightly before refrigerating.
4. To serve, remove the carrots and cut them into 3/4-inch rounds.
Serve chilled with carrot pieces and horseradish relish. JN
Sybil Kaplan is a journalist, book reviewer, food writer, cookbook author and lecturer who lives in Jerusalem.