Two Old Vienna “Gefilte Fish” Recipes: One Fried & One Poached “Rabbi” Style, Stuffed Back Into Carp Steaks With Its “Kapl,” Red “Chrain” And Jellied “Yoich” (Recipes) #Neugröschel

"Gefilte fish," stuffed carp steaks with "chrain," beet horseradish and jellied broth on a plate..

 

Two Recipes: Two Old Vienna Gefilte Fish — One Fried & One Poached Rabbi Style, Stuffed Back Into Carp Steaks With Its Kapl, Red Chrain And Jellied Yoich

When I say that I’m working on a Jewish cookbook, a common response is “Is there anything besides gefilte fish?” (Claudia Roden in The Book Of Jewish Food, 2003.)

Roughly corresponding to the time it took our girls to grow up and move to California, bagels had become assimilated. Gefilte fish was still Jewish food, but not bagels. (Calvin Trillin in Feeding a Yen, 2004.)

A Short Introduction to Gefilte Fish

Famed New York Times food critic Mimi Sheraton once wrote that gefilte fish, Yiddish for “stuffed fish”—nowadays served as poached or fried oblong fish patties—is “part of the holy trinity of Jewish holiday eating: chicken soup, chopped liver, gefilte fish.” 1

Gefilte fish dumplings are a close cousin to French haute-cuisine’s quenelles de brochet (pike dumplings). 2 Vienna also has a pike dumpling dish, Hechtnockerl in Dillsauce (see picture below). 3

Gefilte fish's gentile relative, the pike quenelle, which is a kosher fish by the way and often used in "gefilte fish." Here, in this picture, Vienna's very delicate and exquisite pike dumplings in dill sauce, "Hechtnockerln" in Viennese German. I used Ewald and Mario Plachutta's recipe from their reference cookbook Viennese Cuisine. The dumplings are pretty straight forward like the french ones, the sauce though is typically Viennese and so delicious.
Gefilte fish‘s gentile relative, pike quenelle, is always served warm. Pike is a kosher fish often used to make gefilte fish. The photo features Vienna’s delicate and exquisite pike dumplings in dill sauce, known as “Hechtnockerln” in Viennese German. I used Ewald and Mario Plachutta’s recipe from their Viennese Cuisine. There’s nothing contradicting the kosher laws in this “milchik,” dairy recipe. The dumplings are pretty close in taste and cooking method to their ancestors, French pike quenelles. The addition of dill sour cream sauce, a Viennese specialty, is so delicious.

All these are made of fish forcemeat. But there’s one essential difference: The Jewish dish lacks dairy products and therefore can be served at the same meal as meat, since Jewish kosher laws forbid the mixing of dairy and meat in any meal.

grinding carp onion kaiser rolls and carottes for gefilte fish
Michi, my dear wife, helped me with the authentic gefilte fish: In this picture, she grinds the carp, the sautéed onions, the kaiser rolls—you can use challah instead—and the carrots. If the mixture is too loose to be shaped into patties, add a little more matzo meal.

A gefilte fish forcemeat mixture for poaching can be shaped into quenelles, oval patties or dumplings.

Traditionally, at Jewish weddings in a shtetl (a small Jewish village or town in Eastern Europe), the forcemeat would often be stuffed back into the intact skin of a whole fish—head and tail still attached. This so-called chasseneh fish, or wedding fish, would be poached and, once chilled, sliced and presented on a platter as a forspeis (starter), at the dinner.

The forcemeat can also be stuffed into the hollow part of fish slices—also known as fish steaks. The latter is often made by Jewish caterers today in frum (pious) neighborhoods.

Rabbi’s style “gefilte fish” is carp forcemeat mixture stuffed into the hollow parts of the carp slices. Rabbi’s style means that this is a “chushaveh” dish, a dish for important people, for someone with high status like the rabbi of the community. But everyone can feel important. I made Michaela tie the fish steaks together but this step is really not necessary. It’s just that I’m always scared that the stuffed steaks will open up. Michaela obviously never ever did that before… and they never fell apart.
Rabbi style gefilte fish is a carp forcemeat mixture stuffed into the hollow parts of the carp slices. “Rabbi” style is a “chushaveh” dish, a dish for important people like rabbis. But I suggest making this dish to make anyone feel important! Here is my wife Michaela tying the fish steaks together. This step is really not necessary, I just get scared that the stuffed steaks will open up! (Michaela had never tied them before… and they never fell apart.)

Here in Vienna, the different presentations of poached gefilte fish would have been found in pre-Holocaust Jewish kitchens, and were likely popular with Jews who had immigrated from the now-defunct Austro-Hungarian empire.

On the other hand, fried fish cakes made out of the forcemeat mixture were eaten by the city’s gentile crowd and featured in widely distributed cookbooks of the Austro-Hungarian empire, like the famous Kochbuch der Deutschen Kochschule in Prag (1894), which Sigmund Freud’s family owned a copy of.

The dish supposedly originated in the Sefaradi Jewish communities of Spain and Portugal, and was probably brought to Vienna following many detours, only to end up in this famous gentile cookbook. 

rolling up fish forcemeat mixture for gefilte fish slices
Leftover gefilte fish forcemeat mixture can be rolled up to form a log of gefilte fish for freezing. Just cook the frozen log with a sliced onion and a carrot, then serve slices of the log topped with a slice of carrot.

Landmark cookbooks such as Claudia Roden’s The Book Of Jewish Food (2003), and Evelyn Rose’s The New International Jewish Cookbook (1992) suggest a single gefilte fish forcemeat mixture that can be fried or poached.

Here I present two different recipes for the mixture reflecting the composite character of Vienna’s Jewish population: One is from Eastern Galicia, a typical sweet Hasidic immigrant’s version. The other is the 1894 cookbook’s version with pepper and fresh herbs instead of sugar.

arranging fish in a pot for gefilte fish
Cooking gefilte fish the traditional way: In the bottom of a large pot, we put a layer of onions and carrots. Then we arrange the fish heads and backs in the pot. On top of that, we place the stuffed fish steaks and a layer of patties made out of the rest of the fish forcemeat mixture.

Yes, gefilte fish is huge in the Jewish universe and dates back to the old world’s shtetls. According to John Cooper’s Eat and Be Satisfied – A Social History of Jewish Food, the dish was first mentioned as far back as the medieval era, but is probably older still: Undoubtedly the dish of chopped fish mentioned in the Babylonian Talmud was the ancestor of gefilte fish (Shabbat 118b).

For many generations, gefilte fish is served in Jewish families every week as the first course in honor of Shabbos and holidays. Since it’s generally served cold, it lends itself perfectly to the day of rest where no cooking or reheating is allowed.

simmering gefilte fish
Fill the pot with water just to the level of the fish patties. Then very gently simmer the pot of gefilte fish for half an hour until done. Traditionalists insist that gefilte fish must be poached for two hours at least, enough time for the fish bones to produce a rich jelly.

You might know this cheesy joke your favorite uncle tells every Shabbos: “How do we know that gefilte fish is a Jewish dish?” And everybody to reply: “Because the fish wears a kapl.” And you to explain to your brother’s gentile girlfriend: “The kapl in this instance is the slice of carrot every fish patty wears, just like a pious Jew wears a yarmulka, which in Yiddish translates as kapl.

These are the "gefilte fish" patties, or carp quenelles, with red "chrain," sweet beet horseradish relish, on the side. They freeze very well, so we always make a batch for later use.
These are the gefilte fish patties, or carp quenelles, with red chrain, sweet beet horseradish relish, on the side. They freeze very well, so we always make a batch for later.

Frank Gehry’s Fishy Inspiration

When gefilte fish is served, guests at a Shabbos table are also often tempted to make a talking point out of the relation between gefilte fish and star architect Frank Gehry, née Goldberg—yes, he changed his name because of anti-Semitism.

They have probably read one of the Jewish sites or magazines that inevitably come up every holiday with the nth post on Frank Gehry and how he grew up with a live carp in his bathtub so that his grandmother could have fresh gefilte fish for Shabbos. Leaving it in the bathtub—rather than, say, pulling it fresh from a lake—also removes the muddy taste.

The memory of the fish in the bathtub is a common one—my mother recalls the same. It would seem that this memory should have inspired Gehry’s work, which is what was initially claimed by critics. But later, he denied that storyline, claiming instead that his inspiration came during a talk when he was looking at a Japanese fish tank filled with carp.

But who knows what kind of unconscious bathtub childhood memory could have made him go for fish!

Photo by Luis Miguel Bugallo Sánchez (Lmbuga) 2014 - Sculpture by Frank O. Gehry in the shape of fish. Area of ​​the Olympic Village of Barcelona, Catalonia
Here’s a photo of a Gehry sculpture which sits in Barcelona’s Olympic Village: a headless fish, or rather what looks like the skin of a fish ready to be stuffed. Fish in general, and gefilte fish in particular, certainly seem to have had some degree of influence on the famous architect’s work. (Photo by Luis Miguel Bugallo Sánchez – Lmbuga, 2014)

Gehry’s memories are so archetypal that we will repeat them here for those readers who are unfamiliar with them.

Previous to the interview where he denies his fish inspiration, Gehry had described the impact of these childhood gefilte memories:

In Toronto, when I was very young, my grandmother and I used to go to Kensington, a Jewish market, on Thursday morning. She would buy a carp for gefilte fish. She’d put it in the bathtub, fill the bathtub with water, and this big black carp—two or three feet long—would swim around in the bathtub and I would play with it. I would stand up there and watch it turn and twist … and then she’d kill it and make gefilte fish and that was always sad and awful and ugly.

Regarding the fish’s perfect form, he adds:

I was watching the beauty of carp swimming in a pool in Japan and thinking about how elegant and architectural they were. It inspired a beginning of a study of these forms … That study took a few years. It then became a language that I guess became Bilbao and a few other projects.4

Photo by 663highland 2006 - Fish Dance by Frank Gehry in Kobe, Hyogo, Japan
A work by Frank Gehry with the macabre title “Fish Dance,” located in Kobe, Japan: This fish looks like a carp pulled out of the water, writhing and flopping around while gasping for air before he gets an ugly “klap,” or blow, to his head prior to getting turned into gefilte fish. (Photo by 663highland, 2006)

Gefilte Fish‘s Challenging Reputation

If you were a Jewish child in the 1970s, chances are that you are more or less revolted by the idea of eating gefilte fish, just like every decent human being that grew up reading The Carp In The Bathtub by Barbara Cohen (illustrated by Joan Halpern).

First published in 1972, the tale features two children who come to love and care for fish as guests in the family’s bathtub, despite the fact that they are destined to be turned into gefilte fish. When it’s time for their transformation, their mother, armed with a club, will give the animal one deadly blow to the head. This is a definitive anti-gefilte fish story to everyone who’s read it!

But sooner or later with maturity, like many Jews before you, you will realize that gefilte fish isn’t so bad after all, and at its best is very good, excellent even—See Rebecca Flint Marx’s exemplary story in the New Yorker

Like many, I was used to eating gefilte fish out of a jar, and, you will think I’m crazy, because unlike many people, I still like them out of the jar, though this depends on the brand. Commercial gefilte fish in jars is certainly an acquired taste and would likely be off-putting to newcomers, to say the least.

Where the homemade fish dumplings are light and flavorful, the commercial variety is heavy and bland. Its presentation leaves much to be desired as well: grayish, surrounded by jelly, like a horrible reminder of a dark and smelly shtetl past, a hurdle to assimilation. And because it is such an acquired taste, it’s also a rather tough hurdle for anyone converting to Judaism.

Gefilte fish of any kind is a controversial subject among Jews, and when it comes to jars, things get even worse. In any case, and whether you like it or not, it seems an indelible identity marker.

Gefilte fish is one of the most contentious foods within Ashkenazi [Jewish European] cuisine. Some people adore the chilled fish appetizer and can’t imagine a Jewish holiday without it. Others find it utterly unpleasant. It is rare to find someone whose opinion exists in the middle of these two poles. (Lea Koenig, The Jewish Cookbook, 2019.)

"Old Vienna" style sweet "gefilte fish" in a jar by the Rokeach brand. My guilty pleasure. Don't tell anyone. No food shaming, please. Let's all be kind and positive ;-)
Old Vienna style sweet gefilte fish in a jar by the company Rokeach. Another brand, Manischewitz, offered about thirty different varieties of gefilte fish at one point. The “Old Vienna” reference here by Rokeach is as a place of elegant taste and delicious, high quality, sweet food. The recipe is sweet because the many Jewish immigrants from the former Austro-Hungarian empire brought their sweet tooth with them to the city. But, as noted by Gil Marks in the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food: “To help mask the flavor deficiencies and to appeal to the sweet-loving American palate, producers began adding more sugar, sometimes in copious amounts.” Things were sweet in the past in Vienna, but, as we know from old recipe books, certainly not that sweet. (Photo: Amazon Images)

When I was a student in Paris, I sometimes lived from jars of gefilte with red chrain (or kreyn), sweetened horseradish relish turned red from beets. To be true, I have to admit that I used them as a vehicle for the sweet and hot chrain. Till today, gefilte fish is one of the only ready-made dishes that sometimes enters my kitchen, though admittedly more out of sentimental value than for its taste!

I was aware that this incline towards gefilte fish was literally unshareable, as I do not remember having ever offered it to any of my Parisian friends, be they more or less assimilated Jews or regular gentiles. You see, gefilte fish is a sort of shibboleth to me, only the initiated know how to pronounce it correctly—only a few can appreciate gefilte fish even out of a jar, at least certain brands. So, I kept my ritual a secret. It felt like a sort of guilty pleasure in this place famous for its haute cuisine.

Every Ashkenazi Jew probably has his own story with gefilte fish. In fact, for many Jews, gefilte fish is a Jewish Proustian madeleine, a direct connection to soothing childhood memories through food. But if they had a lucky childhood, this madeleine wasn’t out of a jar.

I guess you will probably think a lot less of me, in culinary terms at least, now that I told you this little secret. But even to me, the commercial variety is a pale imitation of the homemade one which of course tastes way better… so much so that it’s almost a different thing entirely.

Making gefilte fish from scratch is a labor-intensive undertaking, though less than you might think (see recipes below).

From Family’s Fish to Rabbi’s Tish 

It was in the late 2000s, on one of my family’s visits to the Bleibergs in Bnei Brak, Israel that we, well my wife really, finally asked them about their marvelous gefilte fish recipe from Galicia, the south of today’s Poland, which was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. (There lies since the mid-nineteenth century the historic birthplace of sugar root plantations and sugar factories, hence the many sweet recipes.)

Of all the Chasidic, authentic gefilte fish we had tasted, this was surely one of the very best homemade family treasures.

Mr. Bleiberg was a mashgiach, a person who supervises the kashrus (kosher) status of the most prestigious kosher establishments in the region. Over time, him and his wife had developed sophisticated taste buds and a corresponding gefilte fish recipe to rise up to these standards. The recipe was high quality, but still a classic, pious one based on family traditions. 

As a well-practiced cook, when we asked his wife for the recipe, she had everything in her head… “You take a little bit of this and add a handful of that.”

So, in order to share it with you, we sat down and measured everything precisely.

This recipe à la Bleiberg is a typical poached gefilte fish stuffed back not into the skin but into fish steaks. It’s the kind of gefilte fish a Hasidic Rebbe would be served at his court’s Tish (Yiddish for “table”) or at Seudah shlishis (Shabbos afternoon meal). Both types of gatherings of Hasidim around their Rebbe were holy events.

The recipe is really balabatish in the best possible sense—according to the urban dictionary, this is an old outdated mentality, a Jewish form of snobbery, which I would translate as homey yet distinguished. 

Hasidim gathered around the rebbe at a "tish" (Yiddish for "table") of the Belzer Rebbe in Jerusalem. (Photo: Daniel575 for Commons Wikimedia)
Hasidim, the Rebbe’s followers, gather around the Rebbe’s giant white “Tish” (table). This is the court of the Belzer Rebbe in Jerusalem, which originated in the city of Belz in the Austrian region of Galicia, which today is Southern Poland. The Rebbe is seated in the middle of the short end of the table in the background. (Photo: Daniel575 for Commons Wikimedia)
In the foreground a Hasid distributes pieces of gefilte fish out of a jar to the Hasidim gathered around the Belzer rebbe's tish celebration. (Photo: Daniel575 for Commons Wikimedia)
In the foreground, at the bottom left, a Hasid distributes gefilte fish to his fellow Hasidim from the Rebbe’s serving platter, thus sharing a piece of his holiness. The pieces on his plate are easily identifiable as parts of fish patties. These fish bits are passed on usually while the Rebbe eats his own fish. At such a Tish celebration, the Rebbe himself doesn’t eat regular fish patties. Instead, traditional gefilte fish stuffed back into fish steaks, similar to our recipe, graces his table (see below). (Photo: Daniel575 for Commons Wikimedia)

Gefilte Fish: A Sacred Tradition

The making and eating of gefilte fish is such an ingrained part of religious life that in ultra-orthodox circles, every bride to be must not only know how to bake challah, the Jewish holiday bread, but also how to prepare gefilte fish. (Views on who has to prepare cholent, on the other hand, are looser and it is sometimes the husband that does so, even in very pious circles.)

But knowing how to prepare gefilte fish before getting married is not only a precondition to marriage in religious circles. The costume prevails in some rare secular families too (see the video below).

The mystical teachings of Judaism link fish to the coming of the Messiah. Ultimately, all religious Jews dream of feasting with the messiah sitting under a canopy made out of the skin of the Leviathan, the giant fish from the sea who will be served up to the righteous at the end of time. 

Eating fish on Shabbos is thus a declaration of faith in the coming of the Messiah, and his ability to bring upon us peace and harmony in the days to come, when every day will be as peaceful and calm as a Shabbos.

I’m quite certain that the dish they will make out of the flesh of the Leviathan is, you’ve guessed it, gefilte fish. And you have to tell the gefilte fish patty lovers that this will not be stuffed back into anything, as the skin of the giant monster will instead be used as a sunshade.

Strange giant mythological creatures of the primal Chaos: the Behemoth (on earth), the Ziz (in the sky), and the Leviathan (undersea) - Ulm, 1238 - Biblioteca Ambrosiana. The righteous will be feasting upon the Leviathan's flesh at the end of time protected by a canopy made out of her skin (Yes, the Leviathan is female). (photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Strange giant mythological creatures of the primal Chaos: the Behemoth (on earth), the Ziz (in the sky), and the Leviathan (undersea) – Ulm, 1238, Biblioteca Ambrosiana. The righteous will be feasting upon the Leviathan’s flesh at the end of time protected by a canopy made out of her skin (Yes, the Leviathan is female). (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The reference to this feast of the Leviathan is one hint as to why one eats fish on Shabbos and other holidays. Though there are other sources (in the Talmud, for example,) about multiplying and striving like fish, here are the two most well-known rationales:

  1. The numerical value of the letters of the Hebrew word for fish, dag (דג), add up to seven, and seven, among other things, always alludes to Shabbos, the day of rest.
  2. As Shabbos is a day of rest, Jewish law forbids even small activities like selecting or sorting things, which is called borer. So you can’t sort out the fish bones that you do not want to eat from the meat of the fish. It, therefore, becomes very difficult to eat fish on Shabbos. The ground-up fish meat solves the problem as it is devoid of fish bones.

But as all male Haredim (Orthodox Jews) study religious law, they learn the laws of Shabbos. So they know that when you pick out the edible good stuff, thus the meat from the fish, and not the inedible unwanted stuff, the fish bones, this is not considered to constitute an act of borer, sorting/selecting.

Yep, these are the subtleties of religious law. In frum circles it is thus not unusual to eat fish with bones on Shabbos or a Yom Tov, holiday. Slowly, and sometimes painstakingly, picking out the good meaty parts of the fish shows your devotion to keeping the laws of Shabbos.

A Secular Identity Through Food

Like many secular people, I’m interested in Jewish observance and Jewish traditions, especially and foremost of culinary ones. This is the central object of this blog. Culinary traditions as they pertain to Jewish Vienna, with an accent on Vienna 1900 around Sigmund Freud.

With regards to this focus on culinary folklore, I’m not that different from my fellow Jews. Many people want to be Jewish not because of the holocaust but because it’s so much fun and very tasty to be Jewish, to be a pious culinary Jew. (And I’m a Haredi, an ultra-orthodox, in these matters.)

But it is assuredly correct that the Shoa, the extermination of the Jews of Europe, also often plays an important role as a motivation to reenact, preserve and reanimate the remnants of Jewish culture in its practices and customs.

Gefilte fish is part of Jewish cultural heritage, known by all Jews, or at least the Ashkenazi ones.

The dish is so popular that it was used in a famous incident, or so the joke goes, as a shibboleth, a password by a soldier in Tsahal, the Israeli defense force. The poor soldier, a recent immigrant to the Holy land, didn’t know Hebrew yet. So he shouted gefilte fish as a password.5

Gefilte fish really became the symbol of Jewish identity, especially Ashkenazi Jewish American identity. This also happened with the help of shows and sitcoms in the US, notably the first Jewish television show, The Goldbergs with Gertrud Berg, born in Harlem as Tillie Edelstein, who played the legendary lead character, Molly Goldberg.

Gertrud Berg went on to write together with Myra Waldo her most influential The Molly Goldberg Cookbook which established gefilte fish and other Ashkenazi fares in the hall of fame of Jewish food.

This publication coincided with another important element of gefilte fish’s popularization. It was due to the arrival around that same time of commercial gefilte fish in jars on the mass market.

For most secular people today, gefilte fish is associated with Rosh Hashanah and Passover. But for most Hasidim who do not eat gebrokt on Passover, for whom it is forbidden to mix matzo and water, there’s no gefilte fish on Passover, and no matzo balls either. They are both served all year round just not on Passover. Although there are kosher for Passover adaptations of these recipes that avoid the mixing of matzo meal and water by using potatoes and/or potato starch instead of matzo meal.

But there are those who don’t even eat fish during Passover. The reasons for this are obscure. One explanation is that there were no fish in the desert, and therefore, none could be eaten during Passover. So over the course of this holiday we eat what is called falshe fish, mock or “false fish,” chicken patties in the shape of gefilte. But we do keep the red chrain, the sweet beet horseradish relish, with these mock fish patties.

Gefilte Fish in Old Vienna

All these traditions live on today, even here in Vienna. The poached gefilte fish version is primarily from the Hungarians and other Ashkenazi Jews. The fried version lives on mainly in the Sefardi community. The whole tradition, of course, is much less widespread since the murder of the Jews of Europe during World War II. 

Rebbisha gefilte fish, or rabbi style gefilte fish, which is stuffed back into fish steaks, was in all likelihood also served at the table of famous rabbis in Vienna. Even though poached gefilte fish was never the most popular Shabbos fish in western and central Europe, thus in Vienna, the many Jewish immigrants and refugees around 1900 and after World War I had brought the poached fish dumplings and the stuffed fish with them.

To name just one place where poached gefilte fish was most likely served in Vienna every Shabbos and holiday, there was Rabbi Israel Friedmann’s table, the illustrious Czortkower Rebbe, grandson of the so-called “holy one of Ruzhin,” who precisely moved to Vienna after World War I where he conducted his court with pomp and majesty until he passed away in 1933.

Vienna’s gentile population destroyed the Czortkower shul in 1938 during the pogrom of November 9th and thereafter.

The legend reads: “Großrabbiner,” Grand Rabbi Israel Friedmann sz”l (abbreviation for “zichroino livrucha,” “may his memory be for a blessing”) “Wien,” Vienna – Czorkow (Photo: National Library of Israel).
The caption reads: “Großrabbiner,” Grand Rabbi Israel Friedmann זצ”ל (abbreviation for an honorific of a deceased Tzadik, a holy or righteous one, “זכר צדיק לברכה,” “zeikher tzadik livrokho” “may the memory of the Tzadik be a blessing”) “Wien,” Vienna – Czorkow (spelled without the “t” in Czortkow). This must date from somewhere between 1933 and 1938. (Photo: National Library of Israel).
"Leviah", Yiddish and Hebrew for "funeral", of the Czortkower Rebbe, Rabbi Israel Friedmann on December 3rd, 1933 in Vienna's second district Leopoldstadt, in the Jewish quarter called "Mazzesinsel", the "matzo island", in front of Heinestraße 35. The square at this address is today named after the famous rabbi. (Photo by Albert Hilscher. Copyright Austrian National Library)
“Levayeh” (the Yiddish and Hebrew word for “funeral”) of the Czortkower Rebbe, Rabbi Israel Friedmann on December 3rd, 1933 in Vienna’s second district Leopoldstadt in the Jewish quarter called “Mazzesinsel” (matzo island) in front of Heinestraße 35, the rabbi’s home. The square at this address is today named after the famous rabbi. (Photo by Albert Hilscher. Copyright Austrian National Library)

But gefilte fish was not just food for rabbis; communities of East European immigrants and their descendants ate and still eat poached gefilte fish. The Sefardim still eat fried gefilte fish cakes. The gentile population seemingly has lost its taste for it. But the German fast food chain Nordsee still serves fried fish cakes in a bun at their Viennese branches.

Vienna’s famous pre-Holocaust kosher restaurant Neugröschel featured a large aquarium with live carp showcased in a window display facing Lilienbrunngasse-street (See my post about Kaiserschmarrn for more on Neugröschel). Live fish were a big deal. Many people made gefilte fish out of carp. The gefilte fish must have been outstanding there, as people are said to have flown in from Budapest just for lunch or dinner at Neugröschel’s. Billy Wilder, who was living in Vienna at that time was among them. (Listen to this testimony – in German, sorry.)

Vienna Danube canal city fish market 1900 Austrian National Library
The city’s fish market around 1900 in Vienna (1st district, city center) on the Danube canal, looking upstream from the Salztor bridge. The fish were kept alive in large tanks filled with Danube water. This fish market existed until the early 1970s when it had to close due to poor demand since the war. All those fish-eating Jewish inhabitants were certainly missing. (Photo: Austrian National Library)

Then and now, where there are Jews there’s carp and gefilte fish. Even in Israel, carp are farmed in the desert. In the past, Jews were outstanding pisiculturalists. John Cooper writes that “carp became associated with Jewish culinary art because the breeding of this fish was diffused throughout Turkey, the Balkans, and eastern and central Europe by Jewish traders.” 

Vienna city fish market on the Danube canal - Fischhandels-Aktiengesellschaft next to Salztorbrücke bridge 1930
Carp being fished out of a tank with a net in a Vienna city fish market on the Danube canal, on a boat of the “Fischhandels Aktiengesellschaft” (“Fish Traders Inc.”) next to Salztor bridge in 1930.  Carp was one of the main fish traded here until after World War II. (Photo: Austrian National Library)

But cooks in other areas used regional varieties of local fish. In the old days, in landlocked Austria, there were no sea fish like whitefish or salmon—they only became available and affordable later on, and that’s why they are the basis of some of the more contemporary recipes. If the traditional recipes didn’t exclusively call for carp or tench as in eastern Galicia and our rabbi’s gefilte fish recipe, then they must have used pike, trout, or other large freshwater fish.

Just to give you an idea of how popular carp was in those days, the above mentioned Kochbuch der Deutschen Kochschule in Prag (the cookbook Sigmund Freud gave his wife Martha Bernays in 1894), has 10 recipes alone specifically for carp. This was the case even though at that time saltwater fish like salmon were already available in Vienna.

(The Freuds’ cookbook features a recipe for stuffed carp, but that one is definitely not kosher as the filling is made of edible snails from Vienna’s vineyards. The whole stuffed fish is then fried in a pan and basted with anchovy butter.)

The cookbook from Berggasse 19—the famous address in Vienna of Sigmund Freud’s home and office—also stars a recipe for what we call fried gefilte fish under the name Fischscheiben, or “fish slices.” This is at a closer look a very contemporary sugarless gefilte fish mixture, herbed and shaped into breaded and fried patties! This leaves us with two gefilte fish recipes associated with Vienna, one of which is very close to a recipe out of a modern-day cookbook.

Kochbuch der Deutschen Schule in Prag 1894 - gefüllter Karpfen & Fischscheiben-2
On top, there is the recipe for Gefüllter Karpfen (stuffed carp) in German, followed by Fischscheiben (fish patties) as seen in Kochbuch der Deutschen Schule in Prag (1894), the Freud family’s cookbook. The recipe for the fried fish patties is almost identical to Bleiberg’s gefilte fish recipe with a few key differences: 1. There’s no sugar in the cakes, but there are fresh herbs; 2. The patties are breaded and fried instead of poached.

Sigmund Freud no doubt ate sweet poached gefilte fish patties at his mother’s traditional home. But if the founder of psychoanalysis ever had gefilte fish served at his own table, it must have been the more assimilated way, in the more central European, Viennese and Praguian style.

Fried "gefilte fish", carp with fines herbes, "Fischscheiben" in German, with red "chrain," sweet beet horseradish relish. This is a completely assimilated "gefilte fish" dish out the Freuds' "Kochbuch der Deutschen Schule in Prag."
Fried gefilte fish, carp with fine herbs (Fischscheiben in German), with red chrain, sweet beet horseradish relish. This is a completely assimilated gefilte fish dish out the Freuds’ Kochbuch der Deutschen Schule in Prag.

A Contemporary Manifesto for Gefilte Fish

Let me finish with a word on contemporary recipes and new approaches that are not afraid of the carp in the bathtub but rather see it, as I do, as the expression of the degree of commitment to the freshness and fine taste that our elders had.

The two rock stars of this modern movement are Liz Alpern and Jeffrey Yoskowitz, authors of The Gefilte Manifesto – New Recipes For Old World Jewish Foods (published in 2016). Their b(r)and, so to speak, is called The Gefilteria which, per the website:

“…is a new kind of food venture launched in 2012 with the mission of reimagining eastern European Jewish cuisine, adapting classic dishes of the eastern European Jewish cuisine, adapting classic dishes to the values and tastes of a new generation.”

The prettiest gefilte fish you will ever set eyes on - Photo Lauren Volo
Termed by Epicurious “The prettiest gefilte fish you will ever set eyes on.” The package is their frozen product, the plate shows a colorful presentation idea. (Photography by Lauren Volo)

Liz Alpern and Jeffrey Yoskowitz reimagine the recipe by leaving out the heavy filling, stretching stuff like matzo meal and loading it with fresh herbs instead. They end up baking a loaf of gefilte fish in the oven which, in fact, corresponds to an ancient method (see John Cooper).

The fried fish cakes of the "Kochbuch der Deutschen Schule in Prag" are loaded with fines herbes (chives, chervil, tarragon, and parsley) which makes it a rather contemporary recipe.
The fried fish cakes in the Kochbuch der Deutschen Schule in Prag recipe are loaded with fine herbs (e.g. chives, chervil, tarragon, and parsley) which adds a contemporary spin to the dish.

They also have a wonderful old-world version, the afore-mentioned chasseneh fish (wedding fish) where the traditional approach is to stuff the ground-up fish back into its intact whole skin.

All this is very close to the spirit of this website, with only one big difference: Alpern and Yoskowitz focus on Eastern European food. This site offers mainly Jewish Viennese recipes, which is central European, the so-called “elegant” Viennese cuisine. But it is important to insist that Viennese cuisine was shaped by many imports from all over. The same way, local Jewish cuisine was influenced by immigrants, like the two recipes I present here: One is likely of Sefardic origin. The other one stems from Galicia.

To chop up the fines herbes (chives, chervil, tarragon, and parsley) Michaela insisted on using our vintage mezzaluna knife.
To chop up the fine herbs (e.g. chives, chervil, tarragon, and parsley), Michaela insisted on using our vintage mezzaluna knife.

Both recipes have made it to Vienna, to the table of countless Jewish and gentile households.

I have tweaked the recipes ever so slightly to come up with a contemporary version suited to our taste.

Enjoy!

Two Recipes for Old Vienna Gefilte Fish: One Fried & One Poached Rabbi Style, Stuffed Back Into Carp Steaks with Kapl, Red Chrain and Jellied Yoich

 

Poached Sweet Old Vienna Gefilte Fish Steaks & Quenelles

This one is faithfully adapted from a recipe by the Bleiberg family in Bnei Brak, Israel. (There’s an optional secret ingredient. Some people swear by it: kombu algae! It is the absolute highest item on the umami scale. Try adding some to your broth.)
 
Yields 12-14 servings
 
(Made out of three medium or small whole carps. Ask the fishmonger to grind up two fish and to prepare one into steaks. Be sure to get all the heads, tails, fins, bones, and trimmings!)
 
For the fish forcemeat mixture:

Onions in 1/2 inch slices 14.1oz (400g)

2 tablespoons vegetable oil for frying
1 kaiser roll, challah or white bread 2.65oz (75g)
1 medium carrot 1.76oz (50g) peeled
1 1/2 pounds (700g) skinless, boneless carp filets ground (approx. 4 smallish filets)
3 eggs
1/2 cup of sugar 3.88oz (110g)
2 tablespoons salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper freshly ground

2 tablespoons matzo meal

To cook the gefilte fish:

1/2 pound (225g) sliced onions
1/4 pound (113g) carrots sliced
carp steaks cleaned
3 carp carcasses (heads, tails, fins, and backbones cleaned of any blood)
1/4 cup sugar 1.94oz (55g)
2 teaspoons salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper freshly ground

  1. Slightly brown the onion slices in the vegetable oil.
  2. To soften the bread, soak the roll, challah or white bread in water completely. Then, squeeze out the water as much as possible.
  3. Grind the fish fillets once more preferably in a grinder together with the bread and the carrot. (In a pinch, use a food processor.) In total, the fish filets should have been ground twice.
  4. Mix the fish forcemeat with the eggs, sugar, salt, black pepper, and matzo meal.
  5. Taste the mixture for seasoning: Microwave a teaspoonful of the fish forcemeat mixture on high for thirty seconds. This way you’ll get an idea of how the mixture will taste once cooked. 
  6. Cover and let the mixture rest for 1/2 hour in the refrigerator. Try to form one oblong patty or quenelle. If the mixture is still too loose, add half a tablespoon of matzo meal and let it rest again covered in the refrigerator for 1/2 an hour before trying to form a patty once more.
  7. Fill the steaks with the fish forcemeat mixture.
  8. Layer a large pot with the onion slices. On top put the carrot slices. Add the sugar, the salt, and the pepper. Evenly layer with the fish heads, tails, fins, and backbones. Gently lower into the pot, in one layer, the fish steaks.
  9. Fill the pot with cold water to cover the fish steaks.
  10. Slowly bring it to a simmer.
  11. Form fish patties or quenelles and carefully add a layer of fish patties to the pot. You can roll up the remaining fish forcemeat mixture in a Ziploc bag and freeze (see picture above), or continue to delicately layer the pot with patties and quenelles. 
  12. Cautiously fill the pot with hot water right up to the level of the uppermost fish patties (see picture above).
  13. Simmer for up to 2 hours for a traditional jelly texture, or for 20 to 30 minutes until cooked for a more contemporary look. (Cook to an internal temperature of at least 160°F/71.1°C)
  14. When the gefilte fish is cooked, remove it from the water and allow it to cool for at least 20 minutes.
  15. Using a slotted spoon carefully remove the gefilte fish and arrange it on an oval platter. Strain some of the broth over the fish, saving the rest in a bowl.
  16. Place a carrot round on top of each gefilte fish patty and steak. Optionally put the fish head in the center.
  17. Chill the gefilte fish thoroughly before serving.
  18. Serve with sweet beet horseradish relish (see recipe below) and a sprig of parsley.

Fried Old Vienna Gefilte Fish Cakes

Adapted from the recipe called Fischscheiben, “fish slices” in the original German, in the cookbook from the Austro-Hungarian empire Kochbuch der Deutschen Schule in Prag that Sigmund Freud bought for his wife Martha Bernays in 1894:

Yields 12-14 servings

(Made out of the two filets of a medium carp or small pike. Ask the fishmonger to lift, skin, and grind up the filets for you.)
 
For the fish forcemeat mixture:

1 pound (500g) skinless, boneless carp or pike filets ground
3 handful of fine herbs (e.g. fresh chives, chervil, parsley, and tarragon)
1 egg lightly beaten
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper


for breading:

4 eggs lightly beaten
1/2 pound (225g) breadcrumbs or matzo meal
neutral vegetable oil for deep-frying such as canola oil

  1. Grind the fish meat a second time—in a pinch use a food processor.
  2. Wash, dry, and chop the fine herbs (e.g. fresh chives, chervil, parsley, and tarragon).
  3. Thoroughly combine the fish forcemeat, the fine herbs, and the eggs.
  4. Season with salt and pepper: Microwave a teaspoon of the fish forcemeat mixture on high for thirty seconds to get an idea of how the mixture will taste once cooked. 
  5. Shape fish cakes. Form round flat slices of 3 inches (7.5cm).
  6. Breading the fish cakes: Place 2 separate plates side-by-side: One with the lightly beaten eggs and one with the breadcrumbs. 
    Take one cake and dip it into the egg and then into the breadcrumbs. Delicately shake off the excess breadcrumbs. Fry immediately.
  7. To fry the fish patties: This is most easily done in a deep-fryer, but you can use a deep frying pan (skillet). 
    Using a deep-fryer: Heat the oil to 375°F (190°C). Allow approximately 6-7 minutes cooking time, or until a rich golden brown.
    Using a frying pan:  Heat oil 1 inch (2.5cm) deep until it is hot enough to brown a 1-inch (2.5cm) cube of bread in 30 seconds: Gently lower in enough patties to fill the pan without overcrowding it. Cook steadily over moderate heat, turning every 2 or 3 minutes, until the patties are even brown—7 or 8 minutes in all. 
  8. Drain the fish cakes by standing them up on their sides on a dish lined with crumpled kitchen or tissue paper.
  9. Serve hot or at room temperature with sweet beet horseradish relish (see recipe below) and a sprig of parsley.

Red Chrain (Sweet Beet Horseradish Relish)

1/2 pound (225g) raw horseradish coarsely chopped
12oz (340g) raw or cooked beets
1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar
1/2 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon salt (iodine-free)

  1. If using raw beets, cut the leafy tops off and scrub them well under cold water (no need to dry them). Wrap them tightly in aluminum foil and place them on a rimmed baking sheet to cook them in a 400°F (200°C) oven for 50 to 60 minutes or until fork-tender. Let cool before peeling them.
  2. Dissolve the confectioners’ sugar and the salt in the lemon juice by stirring it together.
  3. Mix the horseradish and the beets together in a food processor.
  4. While the food processor is running, slowly add the vinegar-lemon juice-sugar-salt mix. The horseradish-beet mixture should get the consistency of a jam and the horseradish and the beets should be ground as finely as possible in your food processor.
  5. Transfer the relish to an airtight container and refrigerate for at least 24 hours before serving with poached or fried gefilte fish (see my recipes above). Sweet red horseradish relish will keep a couple of weeks in the refrigerator.

 

"Gefilte fish," stuffed carp steaks, with jellied broth and red "chrain," sweet beet horseradish relish. This batch was cooked for the traditional two hours no less—Michaela insisted! The taste is indeed heavenly and the broth produced perfect jelly.
Gefilte fish, stuffed carp steaks, with jellied broth and red chrain, sweet beet horseradish relish. This batch was cooked for the traditional two hours no less—Michaela insisted! The taste is indeed heavenly and the broth produced perfect jelly.

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Footnotes

  1. “Gefilte Fish Gets a Bad Rap, but It Has a Rich History.” Zingerman’s Deli, September 6, 2018.
  2. These were served at Michel Gottdiener’s Paris kosher restaurant and featured in his cookbook La grande cuisine française casher (“The Great French Kosher Cuisine,” 2000)—wherein no classic gefilte fish is to be found.
  3. The recipe can be found in number of cookbooks, and in reference books by Viennese celebrity restaurant owners Ewald and Mario Plachutta (see Plachutta: Viennese Cuisine, 2014).
  4. Gehry has famously called the fish a “perfect form”, “Frank Gehry At 83: Still Obsessed With Fish.” Fast Company, (January 14, 2013)
  5. Author Salcia Landmann recounts in her cookbook Koschere Köstlichkeiten (1964/1984) the same story with Israeli paratroopers shouting gefilte fish while fighting at night to avoid being shot at by their comrades.
Nino Shaya Weiss
Hi, I'm Shaya, an unbridled foodnik blogging from Vienna, the city of dreams and Sigmund Freud. I'm cooking up a therapy with recipes and stories from Viennese cuisine and its eclectic influences – Jewish, Italian, Hungarian, Bohemian... – with an armchair psychoanalytical twist.

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