As the High Holy days approach, we know that with these special days comes a very important aspect to the Jewish culture: food! No Jewish gathering is complete without at least a nosh, and our holidays are filled with bites that are both symbolic and ritualistic. Many families have a menu item that is special to them, whether new or passed down from generation to generation. As we approach Rosh Hashanah, Kayla Soroka, outreach director of CJX Young Professionals, tells us about a new tradition for her family, and why it is so special.
“For my family, a newer tradition we have is to make a salt crusted branzino,” said Soroka.
It is Jewish tradition to have a fish head on your table, symbolizing the embrace of the new year and entering it with a spirit of leading (like the head) rather than following (like the tail). But a fish head can be less than appealing, especially to kids. The Salt Crusted Branzino displays the whole fish, encrusted and baked in a salt crust, which provides a tender and delicious bite, but also a fun and unique centerpiece for the celebration.
“When you are eating a whole fish, that’s a bit less weird and more palatable,” said Sorka. “It’s beautiful for a holiday table, and the cooking method is unique… it’s not your bubbie’s gefilte fish! Even the kids like it, which is crazy!”
Kayla went on to explain why it is so important to her and her family to keep this tradition going, and the importance of not only the foods, but the practices and history surrounding them.
“These symbolic and traditional foods date back to the Talmudic era; it is more than just a tradition that developed in Eastern Europe,” said Soroka. “It is more than just a cultural tradition. In Judaism in general, I think a lot of people tend to see the rituals that we do as just traditions and things that have been passed down over a very long time. But that limits them to seem purely symbolic. On Rosh Hashanah there is an added layer to it.”
During Rosh Hashanah we see the practice of eating a particular food to bring forth a particular idea or blessing; apples and honey for a sweet new year, the head of a fish to symbolize our year being proactive. Kayla explains that from her Jewish perspective, the goal is not that if you do a certain action that it will lead to a certain result. Instead Kayla encourages her fellow community members to treat these parts of the holiday as a chance to really be introspective and meditative.
“The idea of ‘if I do this, I’ll get that’… That is almost a cop-out, and the problem with that is that it’s antithetical to everything that Judaism is,” said Soroka. “Judaism is really getting to the root of our struggles and seeing the patterns in our behaviors and relationships and figuring out how to improve them. This is an incredibly challenging task, but it’s also the most rewarding thing that you can do, to really uncover your strengths and weaknesses and make yourself a better person.”
For Kayla and her family, the salt crusted branzino helps bring a palatable spin to the edible symbolism and tradition of Rosh Hashanah by creating a beautiful centerpiece to the meal that sparks conversation and the ever important introspective thought, helping them to keep tradition alive and education abundant.
“For our family, we focus on the exciting parts; sitting down as a family, the different and exciting foods, which makes this dish very popular and thought provoking!” said Soroka. “Through this focus, we ask those important introspective questions of ‘why are we eating this’, and ‘what do you want to get out of this year,’ and hopefully through this practice our children will turn into lifelong thinkers, learners, and doers.”
You can find the recipe that inspires Kayla’s cooking in one of her favorite cookbooks, Perfect Flavors, by Naomi Nachman, who is a Kosher cookbook author, personal chef, and media personality.
- 1 (2-pound) whole branzino or red snapper
- Kayla states that she has used other similar fish for this recipe, and it always turns out delicious!
- 1 lemon, thinly sliced
- 1 lime, thinly sliced
- 1 orange, thinly sliced
- 3 sprigs dill
- 3 sprigs parsley
- 3 sprigs cilantro, optional
- 6 egg whites
- ½ cup cold water
- 1 (3-pound) box kosher salt
- Preheat the oven to 350 F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper; set aside.
- Stuff cavity of the fish with alternating slices of citrus; place herbs over citrus. There will be citrus slices left over; use for garnish after baking.
- In a large bowl, mix egg whites with water and salt. The texture should be that of coarse, damp sand.
- Place a large amount of salt mixture on the prepared sheet, enough to cover the base of the fish. Place fish onto salt.
- Use remaining salt to cover fish all over. If you wish, leave some of the head and tail exposed.
- Bake for 30 minutes; then set aside to cool.
- After the fish has cooled for 15 minutes, use a serrated knife to cut around the salt to loosen it and remove the top of the salt dome.
- Peel back the fish skin; remove the top fish layer above the spine, avoiding the bones. Place flesh onto a serving platter. Cut away the head. Pulling gently, lift the tail at an angle; the spine and its connected pin bones will separate from the lower layer of flesh. Remove citrus and herbs from the cavity, squeezing citrus juices over fish. Place remaining flesh onto a platter. Garnish with remaining citrus slices.