Lebanese and other Arabs are offended every time Humus, Falafel, and other Mid-Eastern dishes are described as “Israeli.” Now, the war over the authenticity of Jewish food is moving to eastern Europe, where, According to Moscow Times writers Pavel and Olga Syutkin (Forshmak: A Russian-Jewish-German Dish), “Today if you asked Russians, most of them would tell you that forshmak is part of Jewish cuisine. But 150 years ago, it was absolutely considered a Russian dish.”
Vorschmack, or forshmak (meaning “appetizer” in Yiddish) is an eastern European dish made of salty minced fish, common in Ashkenazi Jewish and Finnish cuisine, according to the late Jewish-American food historian Gil Marks’ Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, 2010. There are Ukrainian, Polish, and German variants.
According to Marks, the originally Prussian dish was made of fried herring but was later adopted and brought to the east by Ashkenazi Jews who served it as a cold appetizer, a pâté made of chopped brined herring. Polish and Lithuanian Jews dropped the German name and just called it gehakte herring (hacked herring).
The Syutkin say Yekaterina Alekseyevna Avdeyeva, a Russian writer known for her books on homemaking and collections of Russian folk tales, described the smacked herring dish in her recipe for Veal Herring, published in her 1842 “Handbook of an Experienced Russian Hostess”:
Put in a pot boned veal and two herrings that have been soaked, skinned, and boned; chop them finely all together. Sieve boiled potatoes, and add them to the veal along with a teaspoon of breadcrumbs, finely ground, and chopped onion. Stir everything and mince it all together until it has the consistency of dough. Then pour into this batter a teaspoon of cream, five raw eggs, and two tablespoons of butter. Take a flat tin or deep-frying pan, grease it, sprinkle it with breadcrumbs, put the prepared batter into it, put it in the oven, and let it brown well. This dish can be served for breakfast or as an appetizer at the beginning of a meal.
According to the Syutkin, Catherine the Great created Russia’s Pale of Settlement, where Jews were forced to reside. Known for its extreme poverty, the Jews of the Pale of Settlements had to do with the most inexpensive products, and “what could be cheaper than last year’s pickled herring? That’s where the habit of soaking salted herring overnight in tea came in: old fish had to be firmed up before it could be ground into the forshmak. So in Jewish cuisine, forshmak was transformed into a cold appetizer of ground herring mixed with onion, egg, and apple.”
According to Jake Marmer, writing in My Jewish Learning (Forshmak: Jewish Herring), Forshmak is probably the most authentically Jewish herring recipe:
1 teaspoon sugar
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoon vinegar
2-3 hard-boiled eggs, yolks separated from whites
1 sour apple, peeled and cored
2-3 pieces of white bread, soaked in water or milk (squeeze out the liquid before using)
2 nicely sized herrings, fillets separated a few scallions, chopped
In a food processor, blend the fish fillets, apples, egg-whites, and bread. Add the oil and vinegar, mix thoroughly, and place the mixture in a dish. Crumble the egg yolk and scallions on top. Refrigerate before serving.
Vorschmack was one of the favorite appetizers of the Finnish president, statesman, war hero, and gourmand Marshall Gustaf Mannerheim (1867-1952). In Finnish cuisine, Vorschmack is usually prepared with ground meat, anchovies or herring, and onions, and garnished with potatoes, pickles, and smetana (sour cream). Some recipes include cognac.
Now, speaking of smetana, Czech composer Bedřich Smetana’s 1874 piece, Die Moldau, is considered the inspiration for Israel’s national Anthem, Hatikvah, although Shlomo Maital claims the Hatikvah melody “has traveled the world for centuries, almost like the Diaspora Jewry.” He cites Astrith Baltsan, an Israeli concert pianist and musicologist, known for her Beethoven interpretation and her unique concert style, who believes the Hatikvah melody goes back 600 years to a Sefardic prayer for dew, Birkat Ha’tal.
Dew also goes nicely with hacked herring.