Fish is prominent on the holiday table, especially on the New Year and Shavuot. In Jewish lore, it is a symbol of fertility, because Jacob gave his children a blessing that they should multiply like fish in the sea. It is also associated with the coming of the Messiah; according to a legend, the Messiah will come in the form of a great fish from the sea.[1]

The custom of eating fish on the Sabbath is apparently an early one, as the rabbis of the Mishnah (oral law, codified approx. 200 CE) ruled that it was meritorious to eat fish with each of the Sabbath meals; references in the Talmud also indicate that it was customary among Jews to eat fish on Friday night.[2]

In the Ashkenazi kitchen

East European Jews acquired a liking for freshwater fish from the hundreds of rivers which crossed the mainly landlocked areas they inhabited. In the shtetl, fish was brought live on Thursday. It was swimming in tubs at the market and was kept swimming in the bath till Friday, with several changes of water to get rid of the muddy taste; on Friday morning it was killed with a knife or a hammer blow.

Carp, pike, perch, sterlet and trout were all grand fish. Édouard de Pomiane, the French gastronome of Polish origin who wrote about the cooking of the Jews of Poland, remarked that "every observant Jew eats river fish. The wealthy buy carp and pike. The poor content themselves with a miserable roach or sometimes a piece of salt herring." (The poor also ate tench and chub.) Jewish traders on the silk route were involved in introducing carp from China to Central and Eastern Europe in the seventeenth century, and it was Jews who first farmed carp in Poland. They managed fish ponds and also bred fish from the Black, Azov, and Caspian Seas and from the river Don. It was the carp, which traveled easily live in tanks, that they adopted as their fish. Whereas carp became a symbol of the Sabbath, salt herring, which Jewish merchants also traded and which was a lot cheaper than fresh fish, was the symbol of the weekday and marked the contrast between the two.

Many of the old recipes for freshwater fish and herring are now used for saltwater fish like halibut, haddock, cod, plaice, sole, hake, flounder, and salmon. Salmon has become the great Jewish party dish, ever-present at weddings and bar mitzvahs. At my local fishmonger, Corney's, which specializes in salmon, both wild and farmed, there are always long queues of people waiting to have theirs filleted or cut into steaks for the Sabbath.

Gefilte fish

Gefilte means "stuffed" in Yiddish. Originally, a fish forcemeat made from chopped freshwater fish was used to stuff pike or carp skin, which had been pulled off from head to tail down from the neck. Nowadays, gefilte fish generally means the forcemeat alone, made into balls and poached in fish stock. In Britain, the traditional carp and pike have been replaced by a mixture of saltwater fish.

Gefilte fish evolved as a Sabbath dish because stuffing gives it glamor and because certain versions eliminate the need to remove bones (which could be considered a forbidden activity on the Sabbath). There are mentions of Jewish housewives chopping fish and stuffing fish in Germany in the early Middle Ages; the fish they used then was pike. Carp, on the ther hand, was adopted in Poland, Lithuania and the Ukraine. In Poland it was markedly sweet, while in Lithuania it was peppery. Today Jews of Russian and Lithuanian background prefer their fish unsweetened, and those of Polish ancestry still like it sweet. The sweet commercial version called "Old Vienna" is so named in reference to the large number of Jews who immigrated to that city from Poland in the nineteenth century.

Poached carp served cold

Poached carp served cold in its own jelly is one of the classics of Jewish cooking. It features in Russian and Polish cookbooks as "in the Jewish Style." It was usually eaten cold because it was always cooked in advance for the Sabbath. Those that originate in Poland are sweet. Édouard de Pomiane complained in 1929 that the Jews cooked a lot of fish but prepared it in a way which did not appeal to Western tastes. "This is primarily because of their frequent use of sugar and also large amounts of onions." He was forced, he said, to add grated horseradish to mask the flavor. The sweet fish dishes of Polish Jewry are the butt of many Sephardi jokes in Israel.

Cold fried fish in the Jewish style

The Jews in London had a very particular way of frying fish in batter and eating it cold which has become a classic of Jewish cooking in Britain. It was a legacy of the Portuguese Marranos (crypto-Jews) who came to England in the sixteenth century, many of them via Holland. Manuel Brudo, a Portuguese Marrano, wrote in 1544 that the favorite dish of Marrano refugees in England was fried fish. They sprinkled it with flour and dipped it in egg and in bread crumbs. Lady Judith Montefiore, the anonymous editor-author of the first Jewish cookbook in England (published in 1846) referred to the frying oil as "Florence oil," meaning olive oil. At that time an important community of Marranos in Livorno (where her husband came from) exported olive oil to England.

Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States and a famous epicurean, discovered "fried fish in the Jewish fashion" when he came to England. When his granddaughter Virginia put together a collection of his favorite recipes, she included a recipe for fried fish in the Jewish manner to be eaten cold....

In the Sephardi kitchen

In all Sephardi communities, fish was appreciated and prestigious. It was eaten on Friday night and at the end of the Sabbath, and was often part of the meatless Thursday-evening meal as well. It was grilled, poached, fried, or simmered in a sauce and eaten cold. Fish roe and fish fritters, fish balls and little pies were eaten as appetizers with drinks. Fish was present at holiday feasts and on picnics. In North Africa, outdoor meals were enveloped with the smells of grilled fish with cumin.

As for the choice of fish, there was plenty around the Mediterranean. In the sea towns, where many of the Jewish communities were concentrated, fish represented the great and grand dish. Tunisia and the city of Salonika were especially famous for their fish dishes. North Africa Jews in general, and particularly those from Libya, are fond of peppery-hot, garlicky fish. The Iberian Sephardim acquired a taste for salt cod in Spain and Portugal and maintained their fondness within the Muslim world, although it was not liked there. In Algeria they were encouraged in their affection by the French colonists.

Indian Jewish recipe: Fish and Mango Salad

Halibut with Egg and Lemon Sauce

[1] Studies in the Cultural Life of the Jews in England. Jerusalem: Magnum Press, 1975. [back]
[2] Babylonian Talmud, Baba Batra 74b. [back]

From A Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkland to New York, by Claudia Roden (Alfred A. Knopf Inc., 1996)



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