Making gefilte fish is a project undertaken by only the staunchest cooks. The preparation sounds simple enough: purée a variety of white-fleshed fish with seasonings, egg and a little matzo meal. Form the mixture into small ovals and poach them in fish stock — hardly more challenging than making meatballs.
“Gefilte” means “stuffed” in Yiddish. Which begs the question: Stuffed into what? The earliest recipes for gefilte fish called for the puréed fish mixture to be stuffed back into the empty skin of the fish before being poached in a stock made from its own bones. Over the years, cooks dispensed with the stuffing (verb) and just poached the stuffing (noun).
In our own time, most cooks have dispensed with the poaching. Unlike tomato sauce, a simmering pot of fish stock can cross the line from fragrant to smelly, which explains why homemade gefilte fish is a rapidly dying art. Some buy fresh gefilte fish from the local fish market, others buy frozen loaves, which require about 90 minutes of simmering. But the majority of seder hosts and hostesses buy gefilte fish in jars.
We decided to put the fish to the test.
Gefilte fish is a peerless vehicle for sinus-clearing horseradish, and many people like it for just that reason. But for this tasting, the fish was served naked and at room temperature.
I can tell you that my colleagues were not lining up to participate — and some of them left the room during it because of the strong odor — but I did persuade 10 people to taste 11 leading jars of gefilte fish. They were asked to rate each fish on a scale from 1 to 4.
This time of year, the shelves are crowded with kosher variations on the gefilte fish theme: Manischewitz alone produces 16 (sweet, premium, whitefish only, whitefish and pike, etc.), so we limited the contenders to no more than three from any manufacturer.
The results were striking.
1. Rokeach Heimeshe Sweet (30 points) was the winner by a wide margin, described as “how gefilte fish should taste” and having a “nice spicy aftertaste.”
2. Rokeach Old Vienna (25): “delightful,” “mild.”
3. Mrs. Adler’s Old Jerusalem (22): “tastes real,” “good but not great.”
4. Kedem Israeli Style (21): “sweet and oniony,” “overly sweet.”
5. Manischewitz Premium Gold (20): “smooth but bland,” “fishy.”
The next five all scored between 16 and 18 points: Rokeach Gourmet Sweet, Manischewitz Sweet, Kedem Gourmet, Mrs. Adler’s and Yehuda Sweet.
Coming in last, with nine points, was Kedem Made With Tilapia.