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The fish we love to hate

Special to The Times

Ah, April in Southern California. Long, sunny days, bright yellow daffodils, fresh seafood, bountiful herbs and also the inevitable: no, not taxes, for which you can get an extension, but an oblong blob of beige fish served cold in its own weird jelly.

Yes, it’s almost Passover, and it’s time for gefilte fish. This misunderstood and feared fish patty is a staple of most American Seders. It’s usually made from carp, pike or whitefish -- or some combination thereof.

Making gefilte fish is a production: The fish is boned and ground and then chopped (these days, usually in a food processor) with onion and carrot. Eggs are added, along with matzo meal. The mixture is sculpted into small footballs and simmered or poached in fish stock, which is made from the tail, fin, head and bones of the fish of choice.

Good gefilte fish has the firm and feathery texture of a light pate. In one of Jewish cooking’s most satisfying duets, its mild yet distinctively fishy taste provides a classic, mellowing backdrop for some nice strong, eye-watering horseradish.

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Aesthetically and dramatically speaking, red horseradish is correct; the white disappears on the fish. Thinly sliced cooked carrots (for some reason, there have to be carrots, sometimes with ridges) a sprig of parsley and a piece of matzo complete the appetizer plate.

Savory or sweet

These fish balls start showing up in the 14th century as a favorite Sabbath dish. For one reason, the bones have already been separated from the fish -- labor of this kind is not done on the Sabbath (though why one is allowed to lift the fork to the mouth is a question for theologians).

Gefilte fish can lean toward sweet or savory. If you prefer a little sugar in your gefilte, your ancestors probably came from Poland or Germany. If you like savory, you are linked (at least by palate) to Russia, Romania and Latvia.

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Because making gefilte fish is something of an ordeal, you probably want someone else to do it for you. Fortunately, you can find sweet and savory versions in delis all over Los Angeles and, of course, in jars at the supermarket.

Some of the bottled varieties can be made more than palatable with just a little doctoring: I took a Rokeach whitefish and pike fish patty and gave it a brief (15 minute) warm bath in some homemade chicken soup and served it with carrots from the same broth. It was quite good: the simple treatment took the edge off any industrial taste that might have been there.

A Seder without this comforting, pillowy cloud of cold fish would seem oddly empty for those of us who grew up with it. If we go the rest of the year without ever setting eyes on it -- that’s fine. It’s more than fine.

Sephardic and other Western European Jews who did not grow up with gefilte fish have been known to resist its charms. Rabbi Karen L. Fox of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple was not raised eating it, but her mother-in-law insisted on it at the Seder table. “Everybody got a slice,” she says, glumly. “It was grainy. I just didn’t see why it was necessary.”

Actually, it’s not necessary: Gefilte fish has no symbolic significance whatsoever on the Seder plate.

And still, we eat it

Yet Miriyam Glazer, professor of literature at the University of Judaism, sees an almost mystical connection to the gefilte. “Here where we have 5 million fresh fish available to us, why do we always go back to it?” she asks, Talmudically.

“It’s one of those foods you eat because of its associations. It reflects a whole other world. It takes us back to a shtetl where there was a carp in the bathtub, when women were willing to spend hours preparing something simple. It’s a fish of poverty. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were all of these spiritual connotations lurking in the collective unconscious, holy associations you can’t get eating any other fish.”

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There are yet more reasons for its deep association with the holidays, according to Joan Nathan, author of “Jewish Cooking in America.”

“A Jewish man is supposed to make love to his wife on the Sabbath,” she says. “Fish is sexually arousing and it’s a sign of fertility. So they ate it on Friday night.”

In Eastern Europe, she says, poor Jews filled out their fish -- carp and pike -- with rice or bread or matzo. In the Middle Ages, they served the fish stuffed back into the skin of the fish. It was thought elegant. Then, they started wrapping it in the skin.

Now, it’s served in oval patties. Nathan claims to love making gefilte fish and holds gefilte-fish-making parties. But she may be the only one. This, after all, is a recipe that contains the phrases “Ask your fishmonger to grind the fish” and “remove the foam that accumulates.”

Whether homemade or not, gefilte fish tends to evoke intense emotions. I conducted an informal e-mail survey of opinions about gefilte fish in 100 volunteers, about half of them Jewish. Eighty percent of respondents disliked the dish, but either way, most seemed to feel strongly about it.

“Oy gevult, yuchchchch!” was one answer to my question, “When I say ‘gefilte fish,’ what is your visceral reaction?”

“Pray God, let there be horseradish. If there’s horseradish, we’ll be all right” was another. Also, “Mouthful after mouthful, its charms lessen exponentially.”

“Do you think it’s generally true that Jews like it and gentiles hate it?” I asked next.

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“I don’t know if gentiles like it or not, but I think it goes into the category of Jewish things that scare them,” wrote one respondent. “I don’t think anyone likes it except maybe some really old Jewish people,” wrote another. And another: “I am not sure what gentiles think. I don’t know any.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Gefilte fish:

The not-so FAQs

Q: Why is it called “gefilte”?

A: In Yiddish, gefilt is the past participle of filn, to fill or stuff.

Q: Will the cat eat it?

A: No. I have three cats. I tried putting it in their food bowl at dinnertime. I had no takers.

Q: What is the largest market for bottled gefilte fish at Passover?

A: New York, followed by Los Angeles, Miami, Philadelphia and Baltimore/Washington.

Q: Are there any funny gefilte fish jokes?

A: Not really. “A Jewish Grandmother’s 21 Steps to the Proper Preparation of Gefilte Fish” is funny, but it’s way more about Jewish grandmothers than gefilte fish (https://members.tripod.com/tildejewishjokes/jewish-grandma-how2gefilt efish.htm).

There’s also a tedious children’s story called “How Yussel Caught the Gefilte Fish.”

Q: Are there any gefilte-related organizations?

A: No, but a Nashua, N.H., columnist proposed one: Jews Against Gefilte Fish (JAG-F).

-- Laurie Winer

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

All gefilte are not created equal

Two weeks ago, The Times tasting panel convened to sample gefilte fish purchased from Los Angeles area delis. We attempted to track down every deli that makes its own gefilte fish, and include all those we found. We also tasted gefilte fish from Jerry’s Famous in Los Angeles, which, like many delis, gets its gefilte fish from U.S. Foods, a large supplier. (Pico Kosher in L.A. makes its own, but it will be closed for vacation for 15 days beginning today.)

The panelists were Times restaurant critic S. Irene Virbila, food editor Leslie Brenner, deputy food editor Betty Baboujon, assistant food editor Susan LaTempa, test kitchen director Donna Deane and staff writer Charles Perry.

Although none of the tasters wanted to take home the leftovers, there were two clear favorites: the rustic, homey version made from carp by Royal Gourmet, a Russian deli in West Hollywood, and a more refined rendition from Barney Greengrass in Beverly Hills. The Barney Greengrass gefilte fish included red snapper and whitefish in its ingredients and was among the most expensive ($4.75 per piece).

Additionally, we sampled seven types of bottled gefilte fish, including two Rokeach versions and five Manischewitz; we were surprised that we preferred several of these to some of the deli-made patties, even though some bottled brands had a vaguely tinny, industrial taste. Our favorite bottled gefilte fish was Rokeach whitefish and pike. (In general, the whitefish and whitefish-pike versions had the best flavor.)

If you go the deli option, it’s always a good idea to order ahead. Most of the delis carry gefilte fish year-round, but some make it only for the Jewish holidays.

Here are the results, in order of the panel’s preference:

Royal Gourmet: We tasted two kinds, a standard one made with carp and another made with the addition of beets. Both were large, well-seasoned and fairly rustic in texture and appearance, or “gemutlich,” as one panelist put it. 8151 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 650-5001; $6.99 per pound.

Barney Greengrass: These medium-sized oval patties, with red snapper and whitefish, had very good flavor and appealing texture. Their sauce, served on the side, is more brothy than jellied. Each piece has grill marks, which inspired heated debate: Some tasters said it added pleasant grilled flavor, while others found it “inappropriate,” “goofy” and “just plain wrong.” Barney’s, 5th floor, 9570 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 777-5877; $4.75 per piece, Jewish holidays only.

Factor’s Famous Deli: Among the more appealing visually, carrot-flecked and nicely shaped. The flavor was fairly good, though under-salted. But several panelists found the patty soggy, as if it had been frozen. 9420 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 278-9175; $4.50 per piece.

Tatiana Continental Deli: Brownish and slightly sweet, with a weird, rather rough texture -- more like a hamburger patty than a quenelle -- and not much flavor. 8205 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood; (323) 656-7500; $6.99 per pound.

Nate ‘n Al: Rich, sweet, gelatinous and fishy in a not altogether pleasant way, with an off-putting mouth-feel. 414 N. Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills, (310) 274-0101; $4.25 per piece.

Greenblatt’s Deli & Fine Wines: Excellent texture, but too sweet, with an overpowering amount of black pepper. 8017 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 656-0606, for the Jewish holidays only; $4.50 for two pieces.

Jerry’s Famous Deli (U.S. Foods): A bit of a chemical odor, decent texture. Respectable, but bland. 8701 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 289-1811; $2.54 per piece.

-- Laurie Winer


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