A hands-on foray into making gefilte fish, West Coast-style

Shortly before Passover and several days after undergoing heart surgery, my grandmother was served a plate of gefilte fish in the Jerusalem hospital where she lay recuperating.

“What is this?” she asked, poking at the small mounds of unidentified off-white substance on her plastic plate, both curious and slightly agitated by the fact that this meal bore absolutely no resemblance to her usual daily diet of homemade, traditional Moroccan food.

“It’s gefilte fish,” we told her.

“Filte fish?” she asked.

Like my Moroccan grandmother, I, too, used to be a stranger to the world of gefilte fish. But unlike my grandmother, it didn’t take a stay in a hospital for me to sample the Ashkenazi side of our Jewish heritage and give gefilte fish a try.

All it took was a workshop. A gefilte fish-making workshop in — where else? — Berkeley.

And so, on a recent Sunday morning, I drove across the Bay Bridge and arrived at the home of Dara and Karen, a Berkeley couple who’ve turned teaching the art of gefilte fish into an annual tradition. Each year before Passover, they welcome curious Jews and non-Jews into their home, where Dara shares and demonstrates her grandmother’s West Coast gefilte fish recipe.

As soon as Dara opened the door and let me in, I could smell the raw fish that was sitting on the kitchen counter, neatly wrapped in white deli paper. I was surprised we were using fresh fish, and even more surprised when Dara told me we would be using salmon, among other types of fish.

Until that day, I hadn’t had any experience with gefilte fish. I’d never made it, eaten it, served it or been served it.

Dara began the lesson by asking what drove us to learn how to make gefilte fish.

“My family is Sephardic, so technically I’ve never really had gefilte fish, and I don’t know how to make it,” I said. They smiled at me, the first-timer.

Three pounds of salmon, rock cod and halibut later, and my hands were chopping and smelling like a gefilte fish pro.

Dara taught me how to chop the fresh fish, carrots and onions, and prepare a broth of fish bones and head (by the way, it’s best to keep a cheesecloth handy to wrap around the fish head — otherwise the eyeballs might pop out into your broth during boiling).

While we cooked in her sunny kitchen, Dara shared stories of her bubbe, the woman who taught her how to make gefilte fish.

As I carefully scooped the finished fish mixture with my bare hands, dropping doughnut-hole sized balls into the boiling broth, Dara told me a story of three generations of gefilte fish-making women. The first, the grandmother, would grind the fish by hand. The second, the mother, chopped it up in her food processor. And the third, the daughter, bought it prepackaged, in a jar.

She taught me about regional differences — West Coast recipes incorporate fish like salmon, while the East Coast version typically uses carp.

I stayed to have lunch with Dara, Karen and their children while the gefilte fish cooked, filling their house with a comforting, warm smell. I left their home, a small container of the gefilte fish I had helped to prepare and a copy of Bubbe’s original recipe in hand, and drove back to San Francisco. By the time I had traversed Bay Bridge traffic, my car smelled like a fish factory.

But I didn’t mind.

I cherished my afternoon spent hanging out in Dara and Karen’s kitchen, cooking and telling stories that have been passed down from our mothers and grandmothers.

It didn’t matter that gefilte fish was their tradition and not my family’s — we could just as well have been rolling couscous from semolina and roasting hot peppers for shlada matbucha in my “Bubbe’s” kitchen.

It wasn’t until I got home that I actually tried the gefilte fish. It was still hot and steaming as I took a small, cautious bite.

Not bad for a first-timer, I thought, and reached my fork in for another bite.

Michal Lev-Ram, born in Israel, is a freelance writer in San Francisco. She can be reached at [email protected].