SOMETHING'S FISHY IN THE STATE OF ISRAEL
By Gil Marks
"God said (Genesis 1:20-23), 'Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and birds that fly above the earth across the expanse of the sky.' God created the great sea monsters, and all the living creatures of every kind that creep, which the waters brought forth in swarms, after its kind, and all winged birds, after its kind. And God saw that it was good. And God blessed them, saying 'Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let the birds increase on the earth.' And there was evening and there was morning, a fifth day." Thus fish were singled out with the blessing "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas..." and have served ever since as a symbol of fertility and prosperity. Indeed, Jacob (Genesis 48:16) even employed the Hebrew word dag in blessing the sons of Joseph ve'vidgu larov (literally "like fish may they grow to a multitude"). Among Moroccans, the seventh day of Sheva Berachot (seven feast days following a wedding) is called "the day of the fish," a time when the groom takes a bite from a fish, then gives the remainder to his bride, a symbol of perspective fertility.
During the Babylonian exile, fish also became a symbol of good fortune because they represent the Mazel (zodiac sign) of the month of Adar (Pisces), an auspicious month for the Jews. (I guess that makes fish a genuine mazel tov.) In the Middle East, the water was said to protect fish from the evil eye and, thus, became popular for amulets and miscellaneous good luck charms. In Eastern Europe, it even became a name, Fishel, an optimistic reflection that the boy would be lucky and protected. Fish on Rosh Hashanah contain a triple meaning, commemorating creation and invoking a propitious future as well as the presence of a fish head indicating that one should be a head rather than a tail, " the reverse of Deuteronomy 28:44.
Fish, however, are not only connected to creation in the Jewish tradition. On Sukkot, when departing from the succah for the final time of that year, it became a custom to recite the phrase, "May it be Your will, Lord our God and God of our forefathers, that just as I have fulfilled the mitzvah and dwelled in this succah, so may I merit in the coming year to dwell in the succah of the skin of the Leviathan," the latter term derived from Job 40:31. According to the Aggadah (Bava Basra 74b-75a), the Leviathan is a giant fish that rules over all the creatures of the sea. As with other animals, God originally created a male and female. God, however, saw that if these two began to multiply, their size and number would destroy the entire world. The Leviathan is so large that all the water flowing from the Jordan River every day is not sufficient to quench its thirst. Therefore, God killed the female and preserved it in brine, to be served to the righteous in the Time to Come. From the beautiful skin of the Leviathan, God will construct canopies, called the Succah of the Leviathan, to shelter the righteous from the sun. Under the canopies, the righteous will eat the meat of the Leviathan and the Behemoth (large ox; Bava Basra 74b) in a feast amidst great joy.
The Aggadah (the narrative portion of rabbinic literature) is not meant to always be taken literally, but rather must be understood on a rhetorical or interpretive level. For example, some Kabbalists see the Leviathan and Behemoth as prototypes of two contrasting natures of people, rationalism and mysticism, that in the future will do battle, killing each other and uniting as one, an integration that will feed the righteous in a higher level of consciousness. The Maharal (Gur Aryeh Bereishit 1:21) explained, "There are forces found in the world which, due to their importance and greatness, the world cannot accept them… but in the future all will understand that Yours, God, is the kingdom."
On a humorous note, you might ask that if the manna could taste like anything (Yoma 75a), why could God not just serve the Behemoth and if any of the diners wanted it to taste like fish, it would do so? The answer is that at this final meal with all the righteous gathered around the table, sure enough someone will stand up and say, "Nu, I really don’t trust the kashrut here, better get me a piece of fish."
In any case, fish took on mystical dimensions -- a reminder of the creation of life as well as the Messianic age ushered in by the Meal of the Righteous. Therefore for millennia, no Sabbath meal has been considered complete without fish, Friday night encompassing the theme of creation and shalosh seudot at the end of Shabbat that of the messiah. The Talmud (Shabbat 118b) stated, "Wherewith does one show delight in the Sabbath? Rav Judah the son of Samuel ben Shilath said in the name of Rav, 'With beets (the greens), a large fish, and garlic.' Even a trifle, if it is prepared in honor of Shabbat is a delight. What is it (a trifle)? Rav Papa said, 'Fish hash.'" (Perhaps the latter dish consisting of chopped fish was the inspiration for the Ashkenazic gefilte fish.) Interestingly, some people have posited that the three items mentioned by Rav Judah were aphrodisiacs, echoing the fertility aspect of fish.
Besides the various mystical meanings, fish offer several practical elements for the Jewish home, most notably that they do not require ritual slaughter or preparation, such as soaking and salting. Reflecting the relative simplicity of the kosher status of fish, the Shulchan Aruch devoted only a single chapter to it, while the various issues surrounding meat and poultry required nearly a hundred chapters. In addition, fish can be served at both dairy and meat meals. Therefore, Sephardim also usually serve fish for Thursday night dinner, customarily a meatless meal before Shabbat. Weekday fish dishes tended to be warm, while those meant for Shabbat were generally cold.
Until relatively recently, fish provided an inexpensive source of protein in many locales, making it a necessity in places or times of poverty. As the Israelites complained to Moshe in the wilderness, "We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt for nothing (Numbers 11:5)," referring to the more than 200 species native to the Nile. Over the span of succeeding generations, the species of fish favored by Jews and the way it was popularly prepared was dependent upon where they lived. Fish from the Sea of Galilee and Jordan River, such as tilapia, lavnun (locally called "Kinneret sardines"), and burri (gray mullets), provided a plentiful supply during the First and Second Temple periods. Reflecting the prominence of fish during that time, one of the gates of Jerusalem was called the fish gate (Zephaniah 1:10 and II Chronicles 33:14) in reference to the adjoining fish market. The abundance of fish in the rivers and canals of Babylon made them a valuable source of protein, available to even the very poor. In Persia, fish was caught from the Caspian Sea in the north and the Persian Gulf and Oman Sea in the south as well as various rivers and natural lakes, including kutum (locally called "white fish"), kilka (small anchovy-like fish), breams, mullets, perch, and pike. The profusion of references to fish and fishermen in both the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmud reflect its continuing importance at that time period.
There are more than 30,000 types of fish in the world, of which only those that possess cycloid (round) or ctenoid (comblike) scales are deemed kosher. (For a listing of kosher fish, check the OU website.) Those Jews residing close to the Mediterranean and Arabian Seas naturally made use of saltwater fish, such as anchovies, bass, cod, flounder, haddock, halibut, red mullet, sardines, smelts, and sole. Land-locked Eastern Europe relied on freshwater species, most notably carp, perch, pike, smelts, and whitefish.
Certain fish have become particularly associated with Jewish cookery. Because Jews in medieval Europe were excluded from the guilds and most occupations, they tended to be at the forefront of introducing new ventures and foods. One of these areas was fish, with Ashkenazim emerging as leading pisiculturalists. Indeed, Jews were instrumental in popularizing carp after it was introduced to Europe from China by way of Turkey in the fifteenth century and it was thereafter strongly associated with Jewish cooking. German and Polish Jews relied on a plentiful supply of herring from the brackish waters of the Baltic Sea and, for centuries, have traditionally served various forms of herring at a Sabbath kiddush and to break a fast as well as with black bread as everyday fare. Interestingly, certain types of herring shed their scales when removed from water and, therefore, are not kosher. On the other hand, lox (cured salmon), which is now considered Jewish fare, was unknown in Eastern Europe and the practice of putting it on bagels with cream cheese actually began in New York during the mid-twentieth century.
Fish has been an integral part of Jewish cookery from the inception, enjoyed in a wide variety of forms -- poached, stewed, fried, grilled, smoked, pickled, and sweet-and-sour -- most of these relatively easy to prepare. Arguably the most well-known type of Jewish fish is gefilte, which is among the most time-consuming of fish dishes. Gefilte fish originated in Franco-Germany, probably in the fourteenth century, as a method of serving fish on the Sabbath without the problematic act of separating the bones from the flesh (borer). Whether it is descended from the chopped fish dishes mentioned in the Talmud or adapted from local Alsatian fare is uncertain but, whatever the case, it became a Ashkenazic Shabbat favorite. Originally, the flesh was carefully removed from the fish, deboned, chopped, seasoned, stuffed ("gefullte" in German) into the skin, sewn up, and baked. At some point, cooks began poaching the stuffed fish in a stock made from the bones and eventually the entire process was simplified by eliminating the stuffing step. The name remains although today few cooks still bother to stuff the skin.
The Talmud reflected another ancient Jewish gastronomical fondness, one for savory pastries, sometimes adapted to the denizens of the deep. "Rav Ashi said (Shabbat 37b), 'I was standing before Rav Huna, when he ate a fish pie (at Shabbat dinner) which they had kept on the stove (for him)." Sephardim still make little fish filled pies, such as empanadas de pishkado, the Turkish version commonly using the oily mackerel to produce a moist filling. Other popular Turkish ways of preparing fish are baked with vegetables and wrapped in grape or fig leaves. The Jews of the port city of Salonika, once the largest Jewish community in the world when part of the Ottoman Empire, were particularly renowned for their numerous fish dishes, such as those stewed in tart sauces made from sour grapes, rhubarb, or tomatoes. Moroccan Jews were particularly adept at preparing fish and their fish cooking ability was greatly admired and imitated by non-Jewish neighbors. Georgians occasionally enjoyed catches from the Black Sea as well as trout from mountain streams, commonly smothering them in a walnut or pomegranate sauce. Fish curries, generally accompanied with flat bread and rice or lentils, served as lunch and dinner for many Indian Jews. A favorite Yemenite treat has long been fried fish accompanied with a zesty chili paste.
Today with the ingathering of the exiles, all of this wealth of Jewish fish cookery can be found within the State of Israel, including an increasing number of contemporary dishes. Here are a few traditional fish recipes. I would imagine that Leviathan, when available, could be substituted for any of the conventional fish.
(6 to 8 servings)
Cooking fish in water not only
produces a moist, tender flesh, but imparts the fish's gelatin into the
cooking liquid, thereby, gelling it. Variations of this widespread dish can be found on Sabbath
tables from France to Russia as well as in many Sephardic communities where
it is called jelatine di pescado
or pichtee. In Alsace, the various versions of carpe a la Juive have become part of the cooking repertoire of the
non-Jews of the area. Rich-flavored
carp was the favored fish for this dish by Ashkenazim and gelatinous striped
bass by Sephardim, but any firm-fleshed fish, even salmon or trout, can be
used. Sephardic versions always
incorporate a little lemon juice, partly for flavor and partly as a
preservative. Since lemons were
generally scarce in most parts of Europe, Ashkenazim usually use vinegar.
In the medieval Teutonic mode, the vinegar is counterbalanced with
1. In a large skillet or saucepan, place enough water to cover the fish. Add the fish head and tail, vinegar, sugar, raisins, onions, carrots, bay leaves, salt, and peppercorns. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer for 30 minutes.
2. Add the fish and return to boil. Cover, reduce the heat to low, and simmer until the fish is tender (about 20 minutes for fillets; about 40 minutes for steaks). Remove the fish and strain the cooking liquid, reserving the carrots and onion slices for a garnish.
3. Add the gingersnaps to the cooking liquid and simmer until
thickened. Pour the liquid over
the fish and chill.
(6 to 8 servings)
As a peninsula, fish naturally
makes up a substantial part of the Italian diet.
An ancient method of preserving fish survives in the form of baccala
(dried cod) used to make a variety of dishes including pezzetti (fish
sticks). From Sephardic
immigrants, Italkim learned of pesce fritto (fried fish) and pesce marinato
(marinated fried fish). This version
of ceviche (marinated fish) is traditionally served as an appetizer on Sabato
(Shabbat) in Italian homes. Use
salmon for an untraditional touch.
1. Arrange the fillets in a shallow nonreactive dish. Drizzle with the lemon juice. Cover and place in the refrigerator, turning occasionally, until opaque (at least 8 hours).
2. Remove from the refrigerator about 30 minutes before serving and pour off the marinating liquid. Sprinkle fillets lightly with salt and pepper and drizzle with olive oil. Garnish with the parsley. If desired, serve on a bed of lettuce.
(5 to 6 servings)
This is one of numerous recipes devised by fish-loving Moroccan cooks.
1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees (190 C).
2. Combine the cilantro, scallions, lemon juice, garlic, paprika, salt, pepper, and cayenne. Stuff half of the cilantro mixture into the fish and secure with toothpicks. Place the fish in a baking dish large enough to fit it and spread the remaining cilantro mixture over top. Cover with the tomatoes, potatoes, and carrots. Drizzle with the oil, then add the water.
Cover the pan, place in the oven, and bake until done (about 35
minutes for 3 pounds; 45 minutes for 4 pounds).
Remove from the oven and let stand in the cooking liquid for 15
minutes. Serve warm or cold.
Garnish with lemon slices and parsley sprigs.
NOTE - Use a 5-pound fish for 6
to 8 servings.
(6 to 8 servings)
cakes, a tasty way to use and stretch leftovers, are popular in many
Ashkenazic and Sephardic communities. Some Sephardim serve these patties at the Passover Seder.
1. Combine all the patty ingredients. Chill for about 2 hours.
2. Shape into 2½- to 3-inch long and 1-inch wide patties about ¾-inch thick. Dredge lightly in flour, dip in the eggs, then coat with the bread crumbs.
3. Heat a thin layer of oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Fry the patties, turning, until golden brown on both sides (about 2 minutes per side). Drain on paper towels. If desired, serve with lemon wedges, horseradish sauce, mayonnaise, or tomato sauce.
Substitute haddock for the cod and grind in a food processor. Or substitute a 15- to 16-ounce can of salmon for the cod.
Fish Balls: Shape the fish mixture into 1-inch balls and deep-fry in several inches vegetable oil heated to about 375 degrees (190 C) until golden brown.
Gil Marks is the author of the James Beard Award finalist The World of Jewish Cooking, The World of Jewish Entertaining, and the recently released The World of Jewish Desserts. If you have a special request for a future recipe, forward them to email@example.com