Over the past few years Lindsey and I have been writing our blog, we have heard a number of fascinating stories about how folks came up with the idea for new food and drink products. However, few have been quite as unusual as the tale of how Naftali Engel, a young Chassidic Jew from Queens, New York, fresh out of Talmudic studies at Yeshiva (Orthodox Jewish School) in Israel came up with The Rebbe’s Choice Herring and it’s range of herb and spice infused New York style Herring salads
I stumbled upon The Rebbe’s Choice Herring entirely by accident. I was on a shopping trip to Evergreen in Monsey, NY which is one of the largest Kosher Supermarket’s in the New York region and spotted some rather different packaging in their extensive preserved fish section
Unlike the mainstream versions of pickled, preserved and cured herring, whose labels have regular typeface, pictures of boats, fish and the like, the sketched black and white drawn picture of a Chassidic Rabbi complete with a fur hat and long coat holding an enormous fish in his hands on the labeling of ‘The Rebbe’s Choice’ immediately drew my attention. Then, I noticed the flavor of one of the containers. Smokey Zaatar! I mean, what!? I’ve been eating preserved herring for donkeys years and I had never seen this sort of inventive flavor combo! I had a quick look along the shelf and saw a couple of other interesting flavors in their range including Honey Mustard Sriracha Herring and decided I had to find out more. What inspired the creator of this herring salad?
So, I connected with Naftali, the founder of The Rebbe’s Choice
Back in 2014, Naftali told me, he was in the middle of his studies in Israel and one weekend, on Shabbat, (the Jewish Sabbath) in the mystical Northern Israeli town of Safed in the Galilean hills, he tried some home made herring prepared by a ‘Breslav’ Chassid. He was simply amazed. It was the best herring he’d ever tried. In his words, much better than the rather ordinary herring salads he had been eating in Israel and better than the NY style he had at home. He asked the Chassid who had given it to him – what was the recipe? The response was not quite what Naftali expected…
‘You need to dance with the fishes….’ and recite various prayers
Naftali obtained the basic recipe and on his return to his Yeshiva school, he obtained the ingredients, adjusted them to his taste and then began experimenting with different spices and herbs, coming up with what was eventually to become The Rebbe’s Choice first two herring salad products. Living at the time in Israel, these original spice combinations were inspired by middle eastern / Israeli spices and ingredients one using Israeli Hot Peppers and the other Zaatar, a spice combination commonly used in Israeli cooking. He gave other students and teachers his herring salad combinations to try and they were a very popular hit. His path was set! On his return to the US, Naftali decided to make a go of producing herring salads as a business.
Rather than follow the crowd his aim was to provide a unique product a sort of – Heimishe (home style) meets High End, a craft herring salad product with a spiritual connection for his original orthodox Jewish consumers. He also wanted the product to appeal to people who were looking for something different, using fresh, all natural ingredients with no preservatives or coloring and unusual flavor combinations. Traditional herring with a twist
According to Naftali, the inspiration for all the flavors were closely linked with his studies into famous Rabbis in the Chassidic world and their personalities. For instance, The Israeli hot pepper flavor mentioned above, which became The Rebbe’s Choice – Jalapeno Matjes in the US (see below), was a creative idea inspired by Rebbe David Levov, about whom Naftali was learning about when he came up with that particular spice blend
The Rebbe’s Choice, obtains its main herring ingredient from sustainable sources. Herring in oil from Belarus and pickled herring from Newfoundland. This base product, depending on the final salad, is combined with mixtures of fresh ingredients, spices and herbs and is only prepared in small batches. It is then sold ‘fresh’ in tubs rather than vacuum sealed jars
To date, The Rebbe’s Choice have come up with six unique flavor combinations which we have tried:
Jalapeno Matjes, is full of slices of fresh green hot pepper which offsets well with the cool herring. It’s a great flavor for those looking for those who like a bit of heat
Smokey Zaatar in my opinion is a sort of Sephardi (middle eastern Jewish) meets Ashkenazi (eastern European Jewish) culture clash – you wouldn’t think this herring salad combo would work but it just does – subtle but surprising
Honey Mustard Sriracha – the genesis of this flavor actually started while Naftali was in Israel but finished back in the US – what Naftali was trying to do and I think succeeds with was to get a perfect balance between the heat of the ubiquitous famous asian chili sauce, with the bitter mustard and sweetness of the honey all mixed with the succulent fishy herring chunks
Sweet Black Pepper – was the first all American Rebbe’s Choice product. The base is herring in oil with sweetness coming from the onions and very freshly ground black pepper packing a serious punch
Zesty Matjes – is a bit of a surprise. A sort of Rabbi meets a Priest combination of flavors, full of Italian herbs like oregano and basil infusing the fish. The trick however, is how Naftali has used lemons to pickle the onions mixed with the herring, which creates a citrus like ‘zesty’ element in this salad
Sweet Onion – has a mellow and pleasant taste, quite savory. Instead of just using traditional onions, Naftali has added chives into the mix , adding a soft complexity in the final flavor
Naftali says a new flavor is in the works and this herring aficionado can’t wait to try it!
L’chaim (to Life) !!
The product is Kosher and is currently available in Kosher Food Stores across the USA. You can find out where to buy it and read stories of the Chassidic Rabbis who inspired each flavor Naftali has created, from the following link: