Gefilte fish comes from the Yiddish word meaning “stuffed fish”, according to The Kitchn. True to its name, the earliest recorded occurrence of the dish that inspired gefilte fish is found in “Daz Buoch von Guoter Spise”, or “The Book of Good Food”, written in Germany around 1350 CE, according to Serious Eats. The recipe is called gefuelten hechden, or stuffed pike. The fish is first poached and then the cooked meat is mashed and flavored. The mixture is then stuffed into the skin of the fish before the whole dish is roasted. Serious Eats points out that the dish was originally popular not among Jews but Catholics during Lent.
In the Middle Ages, the gefilte fish was a perfect complement to the Jewish observance of Shabbot. According to STL Jewish Light, it symbolized fertility and the coming Messiah. Fish was also plentiful for the Jews of Eastern Europe and Germany, who had access to many sources of water. Additionally, the recipe could be prepared in advance, which was vital, as the practice of cleaning fish bones is forbidden on the Sabbath. Thus, gefilte fish could be prepared on Friday, stored until Saturday, and eaten boneless. According to Serious Eats, gefilte fish began to take on the form we know best today in the 17th century, when Jews developed their own “kitchen hack” by eschewing stuffed whole fish in favor of processing the mix. meatballs.