Mention gefilte fish to anyone who is Jewish, and some will smile, others cringe. This Eastern European specialty is an acquired taste. But it is also a memory trigger from Friday night Sabbath dinners and Passover holidays. Gefilte fish are dense oval balls made with varying amounts of carp, mullet, whitefish, and pike. The boneless fish is ground, bound with eggs, matzo meal or potato starch, and seasoned with salt and pepper. The ovals are poached in fish stock (using the fish skeletons with carrots and onions). Then the fish is chilled and served as an appetizer with the carrots and copious amounts of zesty horseradish.
Every Jewish grandmother worth her salt made gefilte fish at one time. Nowadays, most households dine on commercially prepared gefilte fish (some containing MSG). Certain varieties are sweeter, others more savory. The binder for the fish is either matzo meal or potato starch. Some are jelled, some swim in a thin broth.
Seven people tasted six brands, most in jelled broth, none labeled “sweet.” Our tasters, who cleansed their palates with seltzer water and matzo (what else?), were underwhelmed. They found many entries “lacking in aroma,” with “no discernible flavor.” One taster was so disappointed, he didn’t want to choose a favorite.
The winner by a thin margin was Meal Mart Kosher Gefilte Fish in Jelled Broth. Several found it to “have a good fish taste.” The clear loser: Rokeach Gefilte Fish Ready-Jelled Broth. Said one disgruntled taster: “Gets the ‘I-can’t-believe-it’s-gefilte-fish’ prize.” Another, who wasn’t happy with any of the brands, said, “Lots of horseradish does wonders for lousy gefilte fish.” One taster reported that she buys fish made only with whitefish and pike, which produce a “lighter, cleaner taste” than what we had on offer.
Talk of Seders past floated around the table. When it comes to gefilte fish, nostalgia is an important ingredient.
The Butcherie (Brookline) Gefilte Fish Israeli Style
$6.79 for 4 pieces
Found in the refrigerated section at The Butcherie kosher market in Brookline, these come in bulk and are packaged 4 to a container. “Hefty, very promising, carrots are visible,” said one taster. “Color is appealing.” Several said, “soft” and “smooth.” Another: “Moist with a pleasant not-too-spongy mouth-feel.” Alas, “Doesn’t taste like fish. Good for people who don’t like fish,” and “way off taste, unpleasant, better with horseradish.”
Kedem Gourmet Gefilte Fish
$5.99 for 6 pieces
Made with potato starch in place of matzo meal, the appearance was a detraction: “Seems extruded rather than shaped,” “unappealing brownish color, manufactured looking.” One said it was “nearly properly fishy,” while another described a “metallic flavor — one bite is enough!” “Too sweet in an artificial way.” “Nothing to write to Nana about.”
Manischewitz Gefilte Fish in Jelled Broth
$8.99 for 6 pieces
A brand well known for its super-sweet wine, matzo, and famous ’60s-era ad “Man oh Manischewitz” also makes gefilte fish. Thumbs up from several for its appearance: “Shape and color looked like Passover,” “light color, finely ground . . . best looking.” It got smacked for being “bland” with “no discernible flavor — blah,” and just plain “lousy.” One person said “smooth texture,” another “spongy.” “Oy gevalt!” declared a taster in Yiddish, “wins for the highest matzo meal to carp ratio.” He was right; the binder was higher on the ingredient list than other brands.
**WINNER** Meal Mart Kosher Gefilte Fish in Jelled Broth
$7.99 for 6 pieces
This uncommon brand was found on the shelves at The Butcherie in Brookline, with a plus for being “slightly sweet with a pleasant taste,” a “homemade appearance with uneven texture, bits of carrots visible with a very pleasant texture in mouth, slightly sweet.” Some tasters didn’t share the preference for sweetness. “Still too sweet even with horseradish.” Sugar was highest on the ingredient list. Like other brands with this amount of sugar, it should have been labeled “sweet recipe.” This brand contains MSG.
Mrs. Adler’s Gefilte Fish
$6.99 for 6 pieces
Described as “pointy and pale,” “bleached.” Some called it “bland,” and assigned it “no particular aroma.” Kudos from one for “a good balance of moist and firm,” but noted as “gritty” by another.
Rokeach Gefilte Fish Ready-Jelled Broth
$6.79 for 6 pieces
Feh was the almost unanimous verdict. “Very fishy,” “strong taste; don’t like it, ugh!” Appearance: “mottled and looked undercooked,” “unappetizing,” with “darker edges.” One declared, “felt like I was eating a wet bitter sponge.” This brand contains MSG.Debra Samuels can be reached at email@example.com.