"It's not foie gras and caviar we are talking about," said Naama Shefi, the organizer of possibly the first ever gefilte fish convention. "Gefilte tastes really good but it doesn't taste good enough to explain our fascination with the dish."
Not everyone would agree with Shefi's statement -- many think that gefilte fish doesn't taste good at all. It is an oblong ball of ground-up fish that can smell rather funky, especially when it comes from a jar. Yet the hour-long discussion on Thursday at the Center for Jewish History in Manhattan brought in about 200 people and could have gone on even longer. Moderated by Mitchell Davis, the vice president of the James Beard Foundation, the panel featured Liz Alpern and Jeffrey Yoskowitz of Gefilteria, Zach Kutscher of Kutscher's Tribeca, Jack Lebewohl of the 2nd Avenue Deli and Omer Miller, the chef of Hadar Haochel and Shulchan in Tel Aviv.
Certainly, part of the reason gefilte fish is still around is due to forces of nostalgia and tradition -- it was on our grandmother's table so it should be on ours. Jack Lebewohl remembered a customer who walked into the 2nd Avenue Deli and announced, "I smell Judaism." Lebewohl believes that "these are the things that remind us of our youth." At the 2nd Avenue Deli, you can expect to find a very traditional gefilte, one that Lebewohl claims his customers like a lot. But for those that wanted to hold onto that memory, but also make gefilte fish a little more relevant in a culinary world of foie gras donuts and uni sandwiches, a gray, ugly amoeba-like ball wasn't going to cut it.
At Kutscher's Tribeca, the traditional gefilte fish -- often made with carp and pike -- has gotten a serious facelift. The restaurant offers gefilte fish made with wild halibut and served with micro arugula. At Gefilteria, they didn't want to serve a product with a horrible gray color so they "focused on making it look nicer," explains Yoskowitz.
Alpern, Yoskowitz's co-founder, admitted that after testing several different versions of gefilte fish -- including curry gefilte and sriracha gefilte -- the traditional version actually tasted the best. Based on Alpern's kitchen trials, maybe it isn't the recipe that necessarily needs updating but rather the quality of the ingredients. (The Gefilteria and 2nd Avenue Deli versions did taste a bit better than Kutscher's...sorry Zach!).
All panelists were enthused about the future of gefilte fish, including Miller who said it doesn't currently have any place in the Tel Aviv restaurant scene, but it perhaps could in the future. Alpern hopes that gefilte will turn into "the appetizer course you're excited about."
But maybe before gefilte fish becomes the next cupcake, we all just need to take a deep breath and dive in, even if we think the stuff is repulsive. "Don't be afraid of it, it's not going to bite you back," says Kutscher.
Here's a video by the Jewish Daily Forward of the Gefilteria folks making their signature item: