"Gefilte fish without chrain (horseradish) is punishment enough," goes the old Yiddish proverb. Of course, as someone who's crazy enough to produce gefilte fish for a living, I disagree wholeheartedly. But I can't deny that the classic Jewish fish appetizer and its sinus-clearing condiment have a deep and meaningful relationship.
One of my earliest Jewish food memories is actually refusing to eat the gefilte fish offered to me during the seder meal. By the time I was born, my grandmother no longer made it fresh or bought the good stuff; she always served the gefilte fish from the jar.
Somehow, miraculously, I knew better than to eat it, even then. And because I never ate gefilte fish as a kid, I had no reason to eat horseradish. The two were intimately linked — I never saw one without the other.
What Is Gefilte Fish?
For those who aren't familiar with Jewish foods or haven't dated a Jew or aren't from New York, let's get some gefilte fish 101 out of the way. There is no fish species known as gefilte. Rather, gefilte fish is an appetizer made by grinding together several types of fish, usually freshwater varieties.
Usually there are onions, eggs, and spices; sometimes bread crumbs or even almonds. Then the mixture is formed into patties and poached in a strong fish broth. Although in the case of The Gefilteria's gefilte fish, we bake it into a terrine.
Gefilte fish, like revenge, is a dish best served cold.
A History of Horseradish
Horseradish is a member of the Brassica family of vegetables (along with cabbage, broccoli, and mustard). The root, which proliferates wildly once planted in the proper conditions, is native to Eastern Europe, and served as an inexpensive all-purpose flavoring agent in Ashkenazi cooking.
Once grated and preserved in vinegar, sugar, and salt, horseradish retains its sharp flavor for weeks, if not months. This mixture was frequently slathered on meats, vegetables, and of course, fish.
There's often a deeper wisdom behind food pairings, and this is certainly true for horseradish and fish. Horseradish not only adds flavor where it's missing and masks flavors that are a bit too fishy, but it also contains natural antibacterial agents that can stave off the potentially dangerous effects of raw or slightly spoiled fish.
Peaking for Passover
While some Jews eat gefilte fish weekly for the Sabbath, Passover is undoubtedly peak gefilte fish and horseradish season. It reminds us just how seasonal Jewish cooking can be: Passover arrives when the horseradish harvest begins in central and eastern Europe, as well as in the Northeast of the U.S., so Ashkenazi Jews always have plenty of horseradish on hand just in time for the seder meals.
If you've never prepared your own horseradish before, head to the farmers market, pick up some roots, and make this the inaugural year. Pair it with some gefilte fish, and you might just fall in love.