“Chrein” (sometimes spelled and pronounced differently, like “Hhrain” and usually called Jewish Dristan because it will clear your sinuses)  to Gefilte fish is the same as Laurel and Hardy, Desi and Lucille, Scotch and Soda. It’s a marriage, a bond, a unity, and since its Jewish, an experience of course handed down with just like Pepto Bismol and Bromo Seltzer.

The horseradish is a root ground into a traditional relish (in texture) either made from the  horseradish alone, beets and horseradish, and now there are other aberrations and can be found in any kosher deli, or in the kosher section of many grocery stores. 

It is served with Gefilte fish which is an Ashkenazi Jewish dish made from a poached mixture of ground boned fish, such as fresh water carp, whitefish or pike, which is typically eaten as an appetizer. My grandmother was the Grand Gefilterer in the family and her secret blend (ratio) of different fishes was a secret she taught to my mother, and that old grinder that clamped on the kitchen table was her workshop.  Never disclosed to mere mortals like myself, each “bahleh buster” (a compliment to a Jewish woman who ran a good house) kept their secret blend handing it down to a daughter..

Gefilte fish is bland, somewhat sweet shaped in a cutlet form. It needed something. A fish cutlet with a much-needed kick, Chrein came along and they have been together since.  Mayo, Butter, Ketchup, Mustard didn’t work out.  It must be Chrein.  Making the Chrein was my Grandfathers job. they were a team.

Traditionally, carp, pike, fresh water mullet, or whitefish in combo were used to make gefilte fish, since access to the ocean was not possible, but more recently other fish with white flesh such as Nile Perch have been used, and there is a pink variation using salmon. There are even vegetarian variations.

Ingredients in addition to the fish blend, include browned cooking onions, salt, pepper, and 3 to 5 eggs. Add vegetable oil (traditionally sunflower oil) may also be added if the fish is lean.

The fish is deboned and the flesh mixed with ingredients, including bread crumbs or matzoh meal, and fried onion. Cooking takes as much as 3 hours in traditional recipes, although in modern recipes the cooking time is often briefer. The resultant log-shaped mixture is sliced, and usually served cold or at room temperature. Often, each slice is topped with a slice of carrot, with a horseradish mixture called  on the side.

Due to the general poverty of the Jewish population in Europe, the 'economic' recipe for the above also may have included extra ground and soaked matza meal or bread crumbs creating many more "spare" fish balls. 

This form of preparation eliminated the need for picking out fish bones at the table, and "stretched" the fish further, so that even poor, but often large, families could enjoy fish on Shabbat. Not only is picking bones religiously prohibited on the Sabbath, but many of the commonly used fish such as carp are exceptionally bony and difficult to eat easily in whole form.

Chrein means "horseradish" in Russian. In the Old Country the plant grew everywhere: backyards, fields, parks. Grandmothers would collect its juicy leaves to use in pickling--when added to the brine, they help pickled cucumbers retain their crunchiness. Slavs and Jews ate Chrein in relish form year round, on sandwiches, with meats, and poultry. The popularity of this easy-to-make, cheap topping was extremely wide-spread.

My grandfather, mentor and best friend growing up,  “Izzy” to his grandchildren was like Merlin the magician to the horseradish, carefully grinding and blending the horse radish, the vinegar and salt and bottling it, burying it in the basement to ferment and then refrigerating it to keep its pungency. Homemade prepared horseradish is about twice as strong as store-bought versions, and lasts about 3 to 4 weeks in the refrigerator or till it eats through the glass. (just kidding, don’t use plastic containers)

People either love horseradish or they hate it. One bite of pungent prepared horseradish is enough to clear out anyone’s sinuses.  It is sometimes hotter than the popular Japanese version of Wasabi. 

When he opened a bottle, after carefully fermenting it in the depths of his basement, sinuses for three blocks around cleared, paint fell off walls, glass shattered….powerful till the fumes went away and you took the smallest fork tips worth to your plate.  

While a side-kick every other week of the year, Chrein makes a solo appearance on during Passover, acting as maror--the bitter herb on the seder plate.  Many Jews buy the prepackaged supermarket brands, but some people have the tradition of going back to Chrein's roots--that is, the roots of the horseradish plant, which they themselves grind to create fresh and pungent mar or. Just as my Grandfather did fifty years ago. Sinuses beware.

Yet, you do not need to be Eastern European, and you don't need to wait for Passover, to put together your own fresh batch of chrein. Made from scratch, it is a delicious alternative to mustard and wasabi sauces (indeed, horseradish belongs to the same Brassicaceae family of plants as mustard and wasabi). It works with deli meats, with roast beef either alone or creamed, grains, or as a dip for baby-carrots and crackers.