Following the carp — the fish in gefilte — from lake to plate

Big fish, cheap fish; sport fish, gefilte fish.

With apologies to Dr. Seuss, that’s a decent summary of the situation for carp today.

The fish has its share of devoted fans — some like it dead on a plate, others prefer it alive and tugging on a hook — nevertheless, by and large, carp still struggles with a bad reputation that’s as hard to shake as fish oil smell from clothes.

“I’m not a carp expert, but it’s a major ingredient for us in gefilte fish,” Paul Bensabat, one of the Manischewitz Co.’s two CEOs, told me.

“Carp, mullet, whitefish,” Bensabat said, rattling off some of the species that go into gefilte fish, a food with no particular symbolism that has long been a staple on the Sabbath and festival tables of Ashkenazi Jews, and is widely consumed every Passover. “Depending on the type of formulation you want, there’s more fish or less fish in the different styles,” he added.

The fish are shipped whole from the Great Lakes region where they’re caught to the Manischewitz factory in New Jersey, where they are processed into more than 50 different varieties of gefilte fish. The vast majority of Manischewitz-brand gefilte fish, Bensabat said, includes carp.

But even a gefilte fishmonger like Bensabat can’t deny that, broadly speaking, carp isn’t a highly regarded species.

“Carp doesn’t have a great name, for reasons that are beyond me,” he said.

That it’s cheap might have something to do with it.

“I was told that, by your family recipe of gefilte fish, you can tell how well-off people were,” Motti Polityko, the owner of Gordon’s Fish Emporium on Pico, said. “If the recipe consists primarily or solely of carp, it means you were dirt poor — and that was my family.”

Every year, around Rosh Hashanah and Passover, Polityko spends the week prior to the holiday filling orders for people making gefilte fish, and each order is slightly different from the next. Most customers buy his “classic fish mix,” made from three different types of fish (he wouldn’t say which kinds); a good number of customers want to make their gefilte fish exactly according to their grandmother’s or great-grandmother’s recipe.

“Some people will take a filet and grind it at home,” Polityko said. “Some people will not only allow me to grind it, but they will also allow me to season the fish and shape it so they can take it home and cook it. And some people want me to cook it here also, and they pick it up here already cooked. We meet them at every stage of the way.” The stock is fresh but not alive; it comes packed on ice from the Great Lakes, including German carp and Buffalo carp as well as Spiegel carp, but the last has to be special-ordered.

A tiny fraction of Gordon’s customers actually ask for the fish whole, without even a slit in its belly. Usually that’s for reasons of kashrut — Passover is a time when many Jews observe more stringent restrictions on what they will and won’t eat, after all — but there is also another time of year when Polityko sells whole carp.

“Chrismastime, I have lots of Poles, Czechs and Germans calling me for carp as well,” he said. “Guess what they call it — ‘Jewish carp.’ ”

It was a Christmas carp at a friend’s house that turned Reggie McLeod, the publisher and editor of Big River, a bimonthly lifestyle magazine that covers the upper Mississippi River, into a carp fan. He remembers how his own father always told him that carp was inedible, but now he counts the fish among his favorites.

“People are kind of crazy about these sorts of things,” McLeod said of various food prejudices. “A lot of people like shrimp and lobster — and they’re bugs.”

Some call carp ugly, but McLeod notes that koi, the very expensive and beautifully colored fish that can be found swimming in Japanese gardens around the world, are relatives of the common carp.

“It’s exactly the same fish,” McLeod said.

In 2008, McLeod started a carp-cooking contest in Big River magazine as a way of promoting carp as a fish worth eating. “We had two entries last year,” he said, “and not surprisingly, they both won — first and second prize.”

McLeod still remembers that first Christmas carp, though; it was in his friend’s basement — alive, swimming around in a tub of water.

“I said, ‘Joe, there’s a carp in your washtub,’ ” McLeod recalled. “And he said, ‘Yeah, that’s Christmas dinner.’ ”

“The Carp in the Bathtub” is the title of Barbara Cohen’s 1972 children’s book, in which two children try to save a fish from meeting its fate in advance of their Passover seder. Cooks traditionally put the carp in the tub for a few days to fatten it up before cooking.

These days, for Jews in Los Angeles wanting to follow exactingly the old traditions, there is at least one store where live carp can be purchased — the Seafood Paradise Fish Market in Rosemead, which gets its stock from a farm in Northern California. According to manager Vincent Truong, almost all of Seafood Paradise’s customers are Asian or Asian-American, and most of those who buy carp are Chinese and Vietnamese.

“We usually cook it with soup,” Truong said. “It’s very tasty.”

There’s also one more way to find a live carp in Los Angeles: Grab a pole.

“Carp are in virtually every body of fresh water in Southern California,” Andrew Hughan of the California Department of Fish and Game told me. “They’re what’s called a non-regulated species. There’s no limit and no season — so you can catch them to your heart’s content.”

Most anglers who fish for carp don’t eat what they catch, though.

“We practice catch and release angling purely out of respect for another animal’s life along with the environment it lives in,” Wayne Boon,  director of the American Carp Society, wrote in an e-mail. Boon mostly fishes the lakes around L.A., but he said that some sections of the Los Angeles River are known to be home to carp as well.

Whether the carp in any given body of water is safe to eat is another matter. “Carp are in the middle range among game fish,” said Sherri Norris, executive director of the California Indian Environmental Alliance, a group that works to educate members of tribal communities about the dangers posed by legacy mining toxins, like mercury, that can seep into certain species of fish that live in particular areas.

In some waterways, carp is off limits to all people; in others, adult men and women beyond childbearing age may eat the fish sparingly.

“In that case,” Norris said, “you really do need to know for a fish like carp whether the body is highly contaminated or not.”

For instance, the carp in Magic Johnson Park Lake, an urban lake in South Los Angeles that is stocked by the California Department of Fish and Game with trout and catfish, should not be eaten by anyone, according to the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment.

Anglers, for their part, are mostly out in search of big carp to catch — and those might be the most dangerous carp to eat. Carp can live for decades, and the longer they stay in any body of water, the more pollutants they can pick up.

What’s more, the big carp are also believed to be less tasty.

“In the case of Carp, the smaller fish — up to 10 pounds — are the tastiest, so I’m told,” Boon told me.

Then again, if your carp’s ultimate destiny is to become gefilte fish, you can just douse it in horseradish.

On the third night, the seder went green

Passover is also called the “Holiday of Spring,” a time when green symbolizes new life. The color also represents all things eco-friendly, which serves as the inspiration for this year’s Workmen’s Circle community seder.

Each year the Pico-Robertson community center, which embodies progressive Jewish values, features a “third” seder with a theme, such as immigration or labor. This year’s event, “The Sustainable Seder,” will be held on April 27 and will be catered by Meg Dickler-Taylor, owner of Large Marge Sustainables, whose motto is “Fresh. Local. Organic. Don’t Panic.”

“Passover is a celebration of a lot of things, primarily the freedom of the Jews [from] enslavement of Egypt. Every year, if we are to create a dynamic civilization, we have to reapply that concept of freedom to what we’re experiencing in our environment right now,” she said.

Dickler-Taylor said she feels enslaved to relying on sources far from home for her food.

“If we can find a way to eat locally, in the coming years, we will feel more secure,” she said.

Dickler-Taylor spoke at the Workmen’s Circle on April 3 about how to create a sustainable, organic seder.

Shop With Recyclable Bags
“Bring your own bags to the supermarket,” Dickler-Taylor said. You can purchase canvas totes from Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s or buy flour sacks for transporting groceries.

Use Durable Table Settings
Why not use your grandmother’s old dishes? If your seder is too big and you must use disposable settings, make sure they’re compostable and “make sure you compost them. Either start own home compost, or take them to an L.A. composting facility.”

Buy Organic and Local
“To guarantee you’re getting California produce, I think farmers markets are the best way to go,” Dickler-Taylor said.

Wine would also be better local, such as Herzog from Oxnard or Hagafen from Northern California.

For the seder plate, eggs should be organic, and maror can be bought organic, too, at many farmers markets. You can also buy organic romaine lettuce or bitter root. Charoset should be made with the few apples that are still in season, or, better yet, make a Sephardic charoset with dates, figs, pistachios, prunes and cinnamon. For vegetarians, the shankbone (which is not eaten in any case) can be a roasted beet.

While Dickler-Taylor says she buys her matzah from New Jersey-based Manischewitz, Chabad often offers a Model Matzah Factory for kids to learn to make their own. For more information, visit

Cook Cruelty-Free
Vegetarians can still have their soup and eat it, with vegan stock “chicken soup” made from roasted vegetables, tomato paste and wine. It may not look the same, but it still has the matzah balls.

Make Smart Gefilte Choices
Between contaminants in fish and concerns over farmed fish, gefilte fish can be problematic these days. To check which fish are “kosher” visit or

Let Your Meat Go Free-Range
Meat and Chicken should be free-range and organic, although pastured meat might need to be braised and slow-cooked.

Don’t Forget to Buy Seasonal
Just because you can buy blueberries now doesn’t mean you should, the Silver Lake-based caterer advises. Take what is in season right now and try and work that into seder meals, she says. She recommends a strawberry and asparagus salad, artichokes, fresh cherries, fresh fava beans (for those who eat legumes) avocado, leeks, ramps and radishes.

Strawberry Asparagus Salad With Walnut on Endive
This salad takes advantage of California’s spring season. Every ingredient, except the cassis vinegar, can be purchased at a local farmers market. It can be presented as a tossed salad with no endive or lettuce, or as bite-sized assembled appetizers.

1 large or 2 medium shallots, thinly sliced
1/4 cup verjus
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 bunch fat asparagus
1 basket strawberries, preferably Gaviotas or other sweet, lower acidity variety, halved
1 to 2 heads endive (optional)
1/2 cup walnuts
1/2 cup walnut oil
1 or 2 teaspoons cassis vinegar (apple cider vinegar can be substituted)
goat cheese (optional)

Marinate the sliced shallots in the verjus and salt for at least 15 minutes and up to an hour. Toast walnuts on a baking sheet in a 350 F oven for seven to 10 minutes or until you smell them.

Bite into a stalk of the asparagus at the woody end. If it’s too tough to chew, hold each spear at either end and bend — the asparagus will break where the stalk turns soft. Steam the asparagus for three to four minutes until crisp-tender, then immediately plunge in bath of ice water for a few minutes. Rinse and pat dry.

Add the walnut oil, the cassis vinegar and some freshly ground black pepper to the shallot mixture and beat with a fork. Taste and adjust seasoning. The dressing should be fairly acidic; if not, add a little more cassis vinegar. Toss the asparagus with a healthy amount of dressing, reserving some dressing to drizzle on top of the endive bites.

Separate the individual endive leaves and arrange in a flower pattern on a serving platter. If the asparagus spears are longer than the endive leaves, cut them in half.

If you aren’t using the endives, toss all of the asparagus, all but a few slices of strawberries, all but a few of the walnuts and all but a few pinches of the goat cheese (if using) together to coat, and plate, or mound in salad bowl.

Garnish with remaining strawberry slices, walnuts and goat cheese, and serve.

Lay a spear of asparagus, a strawberry slice, a whole walnut or two, and a pinch of goat cheese (if using) inside each endive spear. Drizzle each spear with the remaining dressing and serve.

Makes 10 or more servings.