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The sad demise of the Gefilte Fish

At least the spicy Sephardic version shares the nutritious, educational, and religious benefits of this 'brain food'
Gefilte fish is an easy find at Passover. (Wikimedia Commons)
Gefilte fish is an easy find at Passover. (Wikimedia Commons)

It was the Chraimeh that did it.

As soon as our seder table 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 favor of the hot and spicy Chraimeh, not forgetting to lick the fiery red tomato sauce off their plates. My protestations that Gefilte Fish is just the Jewish version of Sushi were to no avail — insipid fish, coupled with a hot horseradish/wasabi — 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.

I was reminded of the manager of a waterway in the UK who put up a sign banning Polish people from fishing in his waters. There was, of course, a hullabaloo about this blatant act of cultural insensitivity (definitely a candidate for some ethnic awareness course). The reason for the 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. It’s just not done.

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 fresh water varieties. Not so the Poles; our great grandparents, in their shtetls far from the sea, along with their gentile neighbors, had no recourse other than to eat the local pond fish. Sea fish had to be heavily salted or shmaltzed, to preserve them on their long journey inland. So Polish expatriates living in the UK, missing the flavor of fresh pond fish, are now going fishing for it.

I was pleasantly surprised, on a recent trip 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 center of Yiddishkeit, but the selection of herring in all its shmaltzed and salted configurations would have made my 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 kashrut supervision).

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 gelfilte 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.”

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 healthy 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 a brain food. I suppose they know that because they are clever from all that fish they eat.

Fish have been in the UK headlines this week following outrage over the perceived capitulation of the UK government to the EU 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 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.

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 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 flavor, I never realized that eating fish was a mitzvah. That means that, with all my fish consumption, I’m more religiously observant than I had previously thought.

And on that positive note, I’m off to find a good recipe for Chraimeh.

A happy and kosher Pesach to one and all, whatever fish is on your table.

About the Author
Moshe Forman is a British-Israeli novelist and technical writer. He was the chairperson of the Union of Jewish Students of the UK and Eire, later working in Israel as a TV news cameraperson, before becoming a technical writer for some of Israel’s leading hi-tech companies. He recently published his first novel, "Quench and Wendy in the Land of Shovan" - an epic fantasy.
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