Gefilte Fish: Is It Really That Bad?

Gefilte fish: it could be worse, yes?
Gefilte fish: it could be worse, yes?

Short answer: No. Slightly longer answer: It doesn't have to be. Full answer: See below.

Long before I knew anything about Jewish food, long before I had even eaten a bagel with schmear, for God's sake, I understood gefilte fish was not good. Not that at this point I had ever tried this traditionally Ashkenazi dish. But when nine out of ten times the phrase "it's an acquired taste" follows the mention of a particular food, you know it's not a crowd-pleaser.

What's less clear, however, is whether the unpopularity of gefilte fish is due more to the unfavorable reputation that precedes it than to its inherently flawed composition. Obviously, someone, at some point in history, was able to stomach and perhaps even liked gefilte fish, an auspicious if not convenient means of consuming protein on Shabbos because it is parve (can be eaten alongside meat or dairy) and does not require one to pick out the bones from the flesh (technically an act of selection, which is forbidden on the sabbath). And while I understand the chosen people are big on tradition, I find it hard to believe Jews have been force-feeding themselves gefilte fish for hundreds of years instead of creating a suitable alternative.

Furthermore, evidence even in H-town suggests gefilte fish is not always already unappetizing. Esteemed Houston food critic Robb Walsh, for example, heaped praise on Cafe Rustika for its innovative spin on gefilte fish, which involves a liberal adornment of jalapeño peppers.

One of the more salient criticisms of gefilte fish seems to be its, shall we say, piquant odor, which can be understandably off-putting to diners. But if it's possible to become acclimated to the rancid stink of blue cheese, why shouldn't it be possible to get over the strong stench of gefilte fish? The other major complaints about this dish revolve around its temperature (cold), texture (squishy, jelly-like) and taste (some compare it to a briny sponge). Often true on all three counts.

Okay, so what is going for gefilte fish? Like tofu and plain pasta, gefilte fish can serve as a great vehicle for other flavors, easily taking on the favorable notes of more mainstream foods (like peppers) or absorbing the aroma of spices such as tarragon and parsley as in this recipe.

I won't pretend that I've enjoyed every piece of gefilte fish I've encountered. Most have been passable but uncompelling. I won't, however, unilaterally boycott this food, because from what little I have tasted, I do know it can have potential.

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