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Moroccan Fish Balls

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago how much I’ll miss the Wall Street Journal’s arts/culture/wine/food/sports coverage when we soon stop taking the paper. (I won’t miss the rest and won’t miss Murdoch, the reason for canceling it.) Another gem appeared as the daily front-page feature (the A-Hed) a couple of days ago, Lucette Lagnado’s piece with news that fabled Jewish food producer Manischewitz was branching out from gefilte fish to Moroccan fish meatballs. Yes, the acme of Ashkenazi food was heading over to the wild Sephardic side.

For years, gefilte fish—plump little patties of minced fish—has been the Jewish holiday treat that some Jews love to hate.

[snip]

Even Paul Bensabat wasn’t that impressed when he tried it. “Boring,” he says. “Pretty bland.” And he’s co-CEO of Manischewitz Co., one of the largest producers of gefilte fish. When Mr. Bensabat and partners took over the 123-year-old company, they decided to spice things up. One idea: Moroccan fish balls.

[snip]

Mr. Bensabat, a Moroccan Jew born in Casablanca, had never tasted gefilte fish when he and his partner joined an investor who had acquired the company. Some Manischewitz fare hadn’t been a part of his upbringing. “I never grew up eating matzoh-ball soup,” he says. His childhood memories were of couscous and other dishes of the Mediterranean.

He started sampling jars of gefilte fish. Manischewitz makes more than 50 different kinds—sweet and not sweet, in jelly and in broth, to name a few.

His partner and co-CEO Alain Bankier, also Moroccan-Jewish and also from Casablanca, is more diplomatic. “It is an acquired taste,” he says.

They agreed Manischewitz needed to go beyond gefilte fish—and quickly. Sales of traditional gefilte fish in a jar were still a pillar of the business, but were steadily going down. Younger consumers favored other foods or brands. The company hadn’t produced new products in years when Messrs. Bensabat and Bankier joined it in 2008.

[snip]

Mr. Bensabat’s prescription was to branch out to Mediterranean fare—starting with his mother’s Moroccan fish balls.

The company’s food technologists at its headquarters in Newark, N.J., were mystified: They hadn’t a clue how to make Moroccan fish balls.

The solution: a cross-cultural, trans-Atlantic cuisine transplant, in which Mr. Bensabat would get the family recipe from his 83-year-old maman and Manischewitz’s cooks would translate it for large-scale production.

There were a few obstacles, starting with the fact that his mother, Claire Bensabat, lives 4,000 miles away in Nice. She speaks French and doesn’t use recipes or follow a cookbook to prepare her delicacies.

Her recipe for fish balls: Take a fish, and “add a little bit of cumin.”

Read the full story.

Now I’m eager to try the fish balls, or fish meatballs, as Manischewitz decided to call them. Manischewitz has a recipe for the meatballs at their website, along with the photo at the top of this post.

Also, accompanying the WSJ article is Mrs. Claire Bensabat’s Festive Sweet Couscous Recipe, along with this explanation: “Sweet couscous is a specialty of Mrs. Claire Bensabat, Paul Bensabat’s mother, that she loves to make; since she cooks by instinct, it was hard for her to come up with exact measures, but through the efforts of working together with her son, she produced the following recipe for The Journal.”

Gail, should we give it a try?

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Categories: Food, Religion
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