Of course there’s nothing wrong with shredded Russet potatoes fried to a golden crisp in a bubbling pool of schmaltz. It’s just that looking around the world, there’s more to the Hanukkah menu—traditional foods that mark the eight-day Jewish Festival of Lights—than the humble potato pancake, known by its Yiddish name, the latke.
But because most American Jews are Ashkenazi Jews, tracing their origins to Eastern Europe or Russia, it’s Ashkenazi foods that dominate the Jewish holidays. Think: latkes, brisket, kugel, and matzah ball soup. This cuisine is rich, kid-friendly, and a bit too sweet, at least for some us defectors.
There’s more to Jewish food, with its lesser-known repertoire for the December holiday. Chances are you haven’t feasted on zalabia or loukoumades for Hanukkah, or fried chicken, couscous, and leek fritters. For Sephardi Jews, whose roots lie around the Mediterranean, in Spain, Portugal, North Africa, and the Middle East, there’s nary a latke for Hanukkah. Sephardi food is Mediterranean food in all its variety and complexity: fresh herbs, ground nuts, and sour flavors that evoke the recipes from Yotam Ottolenghi’s bestselling books.
Hanukkah is a minor event, it’s true, made into a much bigger deal by the proximity (and temptations) of Christmas. This year, the first night of the Jewish holiday falls on Christmas Eve, which only happens three or four times a century. Hanukkah commemorates events that took place more than 2100 years ago, when a group of Jews, led by Judah Maccabee, overthrew their Syrian-Greek occupiers, regained control of Jerusalem, and rededicated the city’s Temple. The Maccabees found enough oil in the temple’s lamps to last 24 hours, but miraculously, the lights glowed for eight days and eight nights. With its message of perseverance, Hanukkah is a classic Jewish story. To remember the oil that kept burning, tradition calls for preparing and eating fried foods, such as latkes.
Or, Bumuelos de Hanuka, fritters made with yeasted dough and aromatic seasonings like anise and fennel seeds, served steaming hot and smeared with honey. Food historians have traced the origins of the bumuelo to Moorish Spain. In the Ottoman Empire, Jewish cooks replaced the seeds in the classic recipe with anise-flavored liqueur, kneading a couple tablespoons of raki, arak, or ouzo into the dough. Claudia Roden, the James Beard Award-winning food writer, explains that Hanukkah fritters in syrup were enjoyed across the Sephardi world. At least a half a dozen names and variations exist, including zalabia in Egypt and loukoumades in Greece. Roden’s masterpiece, The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand to New York, weaves together recipes, history, and memoir, covering the cuisine of a people scattered across six continents. But the book tilts toward her own Sephardi culture, which is now concentrated in Israel and France, and to a lesser extent, the U.S. and Argentina, and whose members number 2.2 million, or 16 percent of today’s Jewish population.
While Roden has lived in London for more than 50 years, she remembers the Cairo of her childhood, where Jews from Yemen and North Africa commingled with Jews from the Ottoman Empire, the Balkans, Italy, Syria, and Iraq. Roden’s native Cairo was multicultural and polyglot; its Jewish residents might have switched languages a few times a day, depending on the company. There is no one Sephardi history, Roden demonstrates, and no unifying Sephardi cuisine. “By and large, Italian Jewish food is Italian food,” says Joyce Goldstein, an authority on Sephardi cooking. “Jewish food from what was the Ottoman Empire is very close to Greek and Turkish food, and Jewish Moroccan food is Moroccan food.”
Hanukkah is a case in point. Baghdadi Jews marked the holiday with pudding (halwa), cooked into a creamy paste with cornstarch, sugar, and oil and scooped up with bread. Jennifer Felicia Abadi, whose memoir features recipes from her Syrian-Jewish family, associates the holiday with crunchy fried turnips tucked into warm pita. The Jewish communities of Istanbul and Izmir celebrated the last night of Hanukkah with a potluck dinner called merenda, a fried food fest that often included keftes, or leek patties, served with tart Turkish-style yogurt. Guests gathered around the menorah as the head of the household lit all eight candles.
According to old cookbooks, Italian Jews have been frying chicken for Hanukkah for at least two centuries. Today fried chicken is everywhere: buttermilk-soaked, Katsu-style, and ultra-crispy Korean. But an old Italian recipe has faded from popular memory. In Livorno, a bustling port city that was once home to a thriving Jewish community, cooks marinated chicken in olive oil and lemon juice and fried the flour-dredged pieces. Serious Eats unearthed this history last summer, publishing a recipe called Pollo Fritto per Chanukkà (Fried Chicken for Hanukkah). Some Tuscan Jews ate fried chicken for the holiday, accompanied by fried vegetables, while others savored a fritto misto that included chicken wings, but also sweetbreads, brains, and tiny lamb chops.
Tunisian Jews had their own riff on fried chicken called poulet en beignets. The bird, cut into eight parts, sat in a mixture of olive oil, garlic, parsley, salt, and pepper. Cooks then swirled the pieces in an eggy batter, fried them, and served the chicken piping hot with lemon quarters. In Morocco, Couscous Sucré recalled the lesser-known Hanukkah ritual of eating dairy, which derives from the legend of Judith, the story of a beautiful heroine who was alleged to have defeated a Greek general after plying him cheese and wine. Roden’s book provides a sweet, dairy-laden Moroccan Hanukkah recipe: couscous cooked with butter, served in bowls with wooden spoons alongside buttermilk-filled tea glasses. Libyan Jews also took Hanukkah fare to mean dessert. Yeasted almond doughnuts called sfenz (from the Arabic word for sponge), bathed in orange blossom honey or date molasses, were a typical holiday treat.
Because there’s nothing required for the Jewish holiday beyond lighting the menorah, Hanukkah is mostly about the food. A penchant for latkes is nothing to dismiss, it’s just that dinner doesn’t have to end with fried potatoes. Jews from Alsace, on France’s border with Germany, even ate goose, a habit adopted from Christmas dinner. Foods for the holiday are just as varied as the people who eat them. In every Hanukkah recipe lies their story.
Claudia Roden, The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkind to New York
Joyce Goldstein, The New Mediterranean Jewish Table: Old World Recipes for the Modern Home
Stella Cohen, Stella’s Sephardic Table: Jewish Family Recipes from the Mediterranean Island of Rhodes
Daniela Blei is a book editor, historian, and writer. Her essays have appeared in The New Republic, Smithsonian, Narratively, The Bold Italic, Foreign Policy, and elsewhere. She lives in San Francisco and thinks $4 toast is OK. Tweet her @tothelastpage.
Loukoumades photo by Alpha CC BY-SA