What is Gefilte Fish?

What is Gefilte Fish
Image by Mushki Brichta via Wikimedia

Natural and healthy, that’s the best way to describe gefilte fish. For many generations, this iconic Jewish dish has been served at Passover Seders (the traditional dinner celebrating the holiday). 

What is gefilte fish? It’s carp or pike ground with onions, eggs, and seasonings. This mix is then formed into balls or loaves and simmered in broth until cooked through. The result? A dense fish cake full of flavor and texture. 

Gefilte fish, or matjes herring—which, according to most sources, means groundfish—is a traditional Jewish dish.

The classic preparation of gefilte fish consists of ground-up whole whitefish (usually pike and carp) mixed with eggs and seasonings. This is often served during Passover. 

Table of Contents

Why is it called gefilte fish?

To answer that question, you must look at where gefilte fish comes from. First off, gefilte means stuffed in Yiddish. The word can refer to other things that are filled or stuffed—for example, gefilte fish is sometimes called Jewish sushi. 

In addition, it’s traditionally served on a blintz (crepe-like pancakes) with applesauce. There are several different ways of making gefilte fish. A common method involves slicing whitefish fillets into thin sheets and removing bones before poaching.

What is gefilte fish made from?

Gefilte fish can be made from fresh-water whitefish varieties such as pike, perch, carp, and salmon. Other ingredients include onion, eggs, and matzo meal. Some recipes call for saltpeter, a chemical used as a preservative in the past. 

The mixture has to sit for 24 hours before it’s ready to cook. There are various ways you can cook gefilte fish. 

Still, one common way includes poaching, straining the liquid, and finally cooking it in simmering water with vinegar and other spices. The finished product should have a thick jelly-like texture when cooked properly.

History of Gefilte fish

The origin of gefilte fish dates back to Medieval Germany. At that time, Ashkenazi Jews would mix ground whitefish with spices, egg yolks, and matzo meal to preserve it. 

The earliest known reference to gefilte fish appears in a Yiddish-language cookbook. This book was published in 1546 by Yehiel Mikhl Epstein, who referred to it as gefilte fish. 

Over time, gefilte fish grew from being a simple means of preservation into a popular dish enjoyed all over Eastern Europe.

The modern versions of gefilte fish typically contain more bread than meat. Some Eastern European Jews still enjoy authentic versions made entirely from ground whitefish.

Types of gefilte fish

You aren’t alone if you don’t know what gefilte fish is. Because of its unusual name and look, gefilte fish can be a little intimidating. But there are several types of gefilte fish (all can be made easily at home). 

Here’s a breakdown of each type so that you can get up to speed on this traditionally Jewish dish: 

  • Traditional gefilte fish is made from a combination of ground-up carp or other whitefish mixed with eggs, onions, and bread crumbs. 
  • Matzo balls are typically served alongside gefilte fish as the main protein for traditional Passover meals in the U.S. Still, the two dishes have evolved into staples during other parts of the year. 
  • The ground-up whitefish mixture is often wrapped in matzo balls before being boiled with onion water. This process keeps the matzo balls fluffy and light while cooking so they don’t sink to the bottom when boiled.

Religious customs and considerations

What is gefilte fish, considering religious customs? Gefilte fish is typically prepared by Jews in Israel using bread crumbs and served during spring.

If you are a Jew and thinking of hosting a gefilte fish dinner, you may want to take into consideration some religious customs. 

The Talmud indicates that gefilte fish should not be eaten before Passover. This is to start preparing for Passover as early as February for them not to have any leftover gefilte fish by its beginning. 

Traditionally, a slightly different recipe would be used on Tisha B’Av since it’s considered an auspicious day for fasting. This recipe includes carp instead of pike or whitefish and millet flour instead of matzo meal.

Common ways gefilte fish can be used

Primarily, gefilte fish is used as a main dish at Passover when it’s typically served with mashed potatoes and horseradish. In Israel, it’s also commonly served in white fish broth alongside boiled eggs and other traditional side dishes for Shabbat lunch. 

But gefilte fish can be found in many recipes throughout the year. Traditional Ashkenazi Jewish cooks make it an excellent appetizer or a tasty addition to soups, stews, and sauces.

It can even be used as the stuffing for kreplach or knishes. It may seem like there are plenty of options for what to do with this unique foodstuff.

You might be wondering what is gefilte fish usually served with; it’s horseradish and, of course, carrots.

Preparation and serving

Preparing traditional gefilte fish begins with cleaning and filleting small, fresh-water fish such as carp, whitefish, pike, and bluegill. Next, all bones are removed from each fish so that only tender meat remains. 

Finally, a mixture of chopped onions and other seasonings are added to create the unique flavor of gefilte fish.

The mixture is placed in a large bowl or pot, along with any bones not removed during processing. The mixture is then covered with cold water and brought to a boil for 10 minutes. 

After boiling for 10 minutes, all remaining liquid must be drained off completely so that only steamed chunks remain. These chunks are then scooped into loaf pans and cooled until firm. 

The best way to cook it

When cooking gefilte fish, it’s important to choose a recipe that your family will love. Recipes often call for white groundfish like flounder or cod mixed with breadcrumbs and spices, but some add shrimp or crabmeat. 

And when you cook it—either by steaming or boiling—it’s best to cook it in water, not broth. That way, you get a more consistent flavor without any added saltiness. 

Depending on how you prepare your fish patties, they can be cooked from 2-3 minutes for each side over medium heat. It’s also crucial to ensure the mixture isn’t too wet or too dry; otherwise, the result may be mushy. 

The result should have a firm texture that doesn’t fall apart when handled. Here you have it, an answer to your “what is gefilte fish” question and a how to cook it.

The benefits of eating this traditional dish

How can you not love a dish that combines fish with breadcrumbs, onions, and eggs, So what is gefilte fish’s beneficial addition?

While it may sound a little strange, gefilte fish is one of those foods that can be good for your body in more ways than one.

It is rich in fiber because it includes ingredients like carrots and onion that are both rich in fiber. Gefilte fish can help lower cholesterol levels while regulating your digestion and helping keep your skin smooth. 

The good fats in salmon make this traditional dish an ideal source of healthy Omega-3 fatty acids. Looking for something with a different taste from shrimp or crab cakes, gefilte fish may be just what you’re looking for! Give it a try—you might love it!

What is gefilte fish taste?

It tastes delicate and light with notes of lemon and dill. However, the texture can vary depending on the type of seafood used: Flounder is dense while shrimp are soft. 

You should also consider if you want chunks of meat in your final product. If so, ask for a mix of ground beef and fish for a classic recipe. For those who don’t eat beef, try substituting chopped mushrooms or vegetarian substitutes such as tofu. 

The amount of salt can also be adjusted according to taste. The fish does not need to be eaten raw, so feel free to cook it before serving.

What is gefilte fish? In terms of odor and smell

The reason gefilte fish smells so bad has a lot to do with its main ingredient: whitefish. Whitefish—like carp, pike, and sturgeon—have very few fat cells (and almost no flavor), making them ideal for gefilte fish. 

The lack of fat also means that when cooked, these fish can emit a fishy odor that might not appeal to everyone.

While many say the smell depends on how it’s prepared, overcooking is the most common cause of this unappealing smell. Freshly cooked gefilte fish should be firm but tender. 

If you cook it too long, it will become tough and rubbery; if you undercook it, the insides will be raw. In addition to its unusual aroma, this traditional dish has an equally unique taste: sweet and savory at the same time.

Where to find stores that sell this delicious treat

If you want to try and make your gefilte fish, you’ll need some specific ingredients. These include whitefish like carp or pike, salt, onions, eggs, and matzo meal.

Most supermarkets sell frozen gefilte fish in a jar—which is a great alternative if you don’t want to make it yourself. 

So try mixing up your taste buds with something new like gefilte fish! It’s super healthy and tastes delicious on a slice of bread with butter or cream cheese. Or, if you’re adventurous, have it with another traditional Yiddish dish: cholent! Have fun eating!


If you’re looking for a taste of Eastern European cuisine or appreciate culture and history, gefilte fish could be for you. It has a distinct flavor and, when done well, can add something special to any dinner table. 

Whether you eat it on Passover or wherever else you wish, ensure you’re preparing gefilte fish correctly by following these tips. What is gefilte fish should no longer be a mystery to you at this point.

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