Saturday, December 26, 2009

Fried Fish Balls

One of the mysteries of the known universe is the fact that you cannot find a decent Anglo-Jewry style biegal (pronounced “bi-gall”) in Israel yet the first thing any Israeli does when he makes yerida to the UK is to open up a Biegal bakery. Where did they learn this skill? Perhaps it’s something the chutz la’aretz malachim that he acquires as he leaves the borders of the holy land teach him as one of the survival techniques for living in galus?

We learn this from parshas Vayeitze. As Yaakov leaves Eretz Yisrael he witnesses the changing of the guards so to speak as his Eretz Yisrael melachim climb the ladder back to shamayim and his chutz laaretz malachim come down. (See Rashi).The fact that Yaakov sleeps on twelve stones (Midrash Raba) could well be a remez to his first taste of a dozen biegals which every real biegal baker knows should be boiled until they are as hard as rock. This is in stark contrast to the stodgy puffy doughnut like monstrosities the American’s call “beigels” (pronounced “bai-gels”).

Another rarity in Israel is real Shmaltz Herring, matured in salt for about the same amount of years as a bottle of Islay Laphroaig single malt (which coincidently happens to be the perfect accompaniment to this delicious black delicacy). Alright, so I’m exaggerating slightly but it is the maturing process of a few months that gives the herring its wonderful flavour and texture. No wonder Israelis and Americans fuss over sushi. They’ve obviously never tasted matured herring like this.

In England you buy the herring wrapped up in paper. The slices of fish meat are browny black with the consistency of soft toffee and just like toffee; the herring melts in the mouth. Here in Israel they sell herring which they call “matyas” (from the Dutch “maatjes”).

It is bright pink and grey and covered in, what looks and smells like linseed oil whose only use that I was aware of until I made aliyah, was to harden new virgin cricket bats. The maturation process consists of the time it takes to cut the fish into squares, drown it in oil and pack it in tubs.

The correct term for Shmaltz Herring in Lashon HaKodesh is in fact “Dag Maliach”, which is mentioned in Meseches Brachos, Perek vav, mishna zayin. I doubt that our Tanaim as mentioned in this mishna were talking about these squares of pink slime when they asked the servant for some bread to help the salty herring go down. It’s much more likely they would have recognised the regal black Shmaltz Herring of England.

The English Jewish community prefers to eat their Shmaltz Herring either with a biegal or on a cracker which is common to all United Synagogue Kiddushim, along with bridge rolls and chopped herring and cocktail fried fish balls. It is of course a minhag at every Kiddush to recite the following joke over the black stuff: You hold a cracker up to your ear and ask “What’s this?” to which you are supposed to reply “a herring aid”. (Boom boom).

As just mentioned, there is one Jewish food which is guaranteed to be found in every kosher food outlet in Britain. The classic fried fish ball. This basic Jewish food stuff of Anglo Jewry is incredibly versatile, suitable for any occasion and perfect for picnics. It can also be bought from every Tesco supermarket kosher department. Well I say department, it’s actually one foot of shelf space, squeezed between the seafood and the pork section. If you are lucky they’ll have some cheddar cheese, tubes of Swedish roe and some Blooms vieners. However you can always guarantee they’ll have a packet of fish balls. These balls which for some are the last connection they have to Judaism before they sink into the abyss of assimilation are of course no where to be found in Israel.

An English friend’s wife (also English) decided to make boiled and fried fish balls, English style, for a Kiddush she was hosting for her extended family. During the Kiddush, her daughter spoke to her and told her that the daughter’s mother-in-law (an Israeli) wanted to know why her mother was serving cold kneidalach and cold falafel balls with chrain at the Kiddush.

In my opinion, a Shabbos Cholent is not complete without Kishkeh, as Ashkenazi as Gefilta fish. The good news is that you can buy Kishkeh in Israel. The bad news is that the Israelis seem to think that it’s a good idea to put Sefardi style hot spices in it. Why? It’s like eating Gefilta fish with Schug!

Of course Ashkenasim eat their Gefilta fish with red chrain. It’s a tradition to write “Extra Hot” on the label even though it’s as sweet as strawberry jam. This exclusively Ashkenazi relish is the subject of much frustration when Pesach arrives. Try and find a jar of chrain in Israel that doesn’t say “le ochlei kitniot vilvad” – for those who eat kitniot only, i.e. only the Sefardim! Someone’s idea of a joke obviously.

Anyway, enough of this banter. I thought I’d leave you with some easy English recipes, adapted for the Israeli supermarket.

Fried Fish balls

1 kg Minced Bakala fish. (Also called dag Argentini). If you happen to find a fresh fish shop then you can ask them to mince it for you. Otherwise you’ll have to do this yourself.

1 large onion, minced.
2 large eggs.
Matza Meal to bind
Salt and pepper and sugar to taste.

Squeeze out as much water as possible from the minced fish. Place in a large mixing bowl. Add the eggs and onions. Stir in the matza meal until you are able to make a ball with you hands without it disintegrating. Add salt, pepper and sugar to taste.

Leave mixture for 15 minutes. Meanwhile pour up to an inch (2 cm) of oil into your frying pan and heat. Place a few drops of mixture into the pan and wait for them to start sizzling as an indication that the oil is now hot enough to fry. Prepare a tray and cover with kitchen roll paper or some white serviettes to place the cooked balls into. The paper will soak up the excess oil.

Wet your hands and make balls approximately the size of a kneidelach and gently place in the pan. Remove when dark golden brown on all sides.

Serve cold.

Chopped Herring.

500g of pickled herring (including skin) and onions in vinegar liquor. (Keep the liquor)

1 Large sour apple
Sliced white bread
2 tsp sugar. (If the liquor already contains sugar then reduce amount).
2 hard boiled eggs for optional topping.

Remove the herring and onions from the liquor and blend with the apple.

Place mixture in a mixing bowl. Place two slices of bread (after removing the crust) on a plate. Mix in just enough of the vinegar liquor so that bread becomes a thick paste. Mix this into the fish. If the herring mixture is too runny then add another slice of bread.

Add sugar to taste.

Some sprinkle with chopped boiled eggs. Some serve on a bed of lettuce.


Bouncer said...

Why does nobody in Israel sell fried fish balls (yummy in my tummy!) ?

Reb Mordechai said...

Isn't it weird Bouncer? It's a total mystery to me. Just try getting minced fish in the supermarket. If you are lucky they'll have Nilus which is too wet to make fried fish balls.

Amitai said...

I think that if you could have got all the these things in Israel it would take away a bit of its uniqueness. The fact it's so rare makes it a bit like going on holiday. You cant ,for example, go buy in a decent "Marks & Spencers" in Israel, it just isn't there.

Reb Mordechai said...

Actually about 18 years ago they opened a chain of Marks and Sparks stores here in Israel but instead of selling all the popular British stuff, the Israeli managers filled the shelves with Israeli style clothes that they thought would sell here. How foolish of them. It said M&S on the shop front but when you walked in you didn't recognise it. The chain lasted about 5 years here before it closed.

Harvey said...

you can get perfect minced fish in machene yehuda market. And holy beigals fry great ones if you don't want to do them yourself.

Reb Mordechai said...

Shalom Harvey. Perhaps it was the formatting but I'm not quite sure what you are saying. Is the reference to Holy Bagels about the Beigals or about the fish balls? If it's the bagels then I certainly don't agree. Their bagals are as soft and stodgy as Krembo (Crembo?)

Daniel said...

From what I can gather, herring is found mainly in the cold waters of the North Atlantic, North Pacific and Baltic oceans/seas. The mediterrean, which has israel along its border, is warmer and therefore not a suitable habitat for these cold-water fish. This is one reason why chopped herring is less common in Israel than in Europe and America.

Reb Mordechai said...


Your deadpan humour is too subtle for most people.

MSMUM said...

Thank you for the lively article which I had to read out loud to my husband.
And more importantly thank you so much for the fish balls recipe! We made Alyah six month ago and we miss Amor's fish balls so much. I don't even imagine coming near them, nevertheless Pesach is coming and we need fish balls to survive ;)

Anonymous said...

Dear Rebbe
Thank you for your recipe for fish balls, the only ones I could find were ones with strange things like coffee mate in them!
Kind regards, Miriam