One of the Ashkenazi Jewish foods I’ve always been curious about is gefilte fish. Mostly because so many of my Jewish friends vehemently dislike the canned or jarred version they grew up eating. It certainly doesn’t seem all that appetizing, especially for a young child!
Whenever I think of gefilte fish, I think of the Japanese version of fish cakes that I grew up with: Kamaboko. Coincidentally, when you search for “gefilte fish” online, kamaboko also shows up as one of the few other similar fish cake dishes in the world (and vice versa).
Kamaboko is a cured and processed seafood product or fish cake, of which there are countless types in Japanese cuisine. Red and white kamaboko is eaten on New Year’s Day in Japan as one of the many lucky symbolic foods. It’s also eaten as a snack by both children and adults in Japan. Similar to jarred gefilte fish, there are certainly very processed versions available. However, there are also kamaboko makers of exceptional quality in Japan. When I lived there, I’d sometimes stop at the local kamaboko shop on my walk home from work. There are many different flavors available, which are created by mixing in different seasonal vegetables. It’s often served with a dollop of Japanese mayonnaise, and is a delicious and nutritious savory snack.
While I’ve heard great things about the Joan Nathan gefilte fish recipe, this year I thought I’d try combining Japanese and Jewish recipes to make a kamaboko-inspired gefilte fish. Instead of steaming the patties, I’ve chosen to pan fry them; this browns them nicely and gives them a nice crunch on the outside. I also chose to use potato starch instead of matzo meal as a binder, which is what gives kamaboko a slightly firmer and gummier texture. These fish patties are a great first course for your seder meal or a wonderful afternoon snack. This recipe is also incredibly easy (I swear!), especially if you have the fishmonger debone, skin and grind the fish for you.
For fish cakes:
A note about the fish: I used rock cod, but most white fish work well—I especially like the texture and flavor of wild caught. Most kamaboko and gefilte fish are made with a blend of fish—you could even throw in salmon. I highly recommend asking the fishmonger (it will save you loads of time) at the counter to debone, skin and put it through the grinder. You lose about a 1/4 pound to the grinder, so you’ll need to purchase a little over a pound to start. If the fishmonger at your local market is not able to do this, carefully debone and skin the fish yourself. Using a food processor, blend until smooth. The other reason I prefer to have the fishmonger do this step for me is that it can be tough on your food processor if you don’t have a heavy-duty one.
1. Place the ground fish in a large mixing bowl. Add a little bit of salt at a time and mix until well-incorporated. Add the rest of the ingredients and mix well. Let the mixture sit at room temperature for 30 minutes.
2. Pour a bit of olive oil into a small bowl. Pour a bit more onto a lined baking sheet and spread it evenly.
3. Coat your hands with a bit of oil from the bowl and place about 2 teaspoons of the mixture in your hands. Press lightly and shape them into flat little footballs (see image). You’ll need to coat your hands with oil every 2-3 patties. Once you’ve used up all of the mixture, let them sit on the baking sheet for 30 minutes.
4. Heat a large non-stick pan over medium-low heat and melt a bit of oil in the pan. (You can use a regular stainless pan, but make sure the bottom is well coated with a high-heat oil such as ghee, vegetable oil or coconut oil. You may need to clean or wipe down the pan between batches so the bottom doesn’t burn.) Once the pan is hot, carefully place fishcakes one by one onto the sizzling pan. Cook for about 3-4 minutes on each side, uncovered, until browned and the center is firm. You can also check for doneness with a toothpick–if it comes out clean, it’s cooked.
5. Let the fish cakes cool slightly on a paper towel (about 10 minutes). Place them on a bed of shredded romaine lettuce, drizzle with wasabi mayonnaise and garnish with chives and dill. Enjoy!