Wendy Kalman
Wendy Kalman
There are many ways to see and understand

Jewish history through Hanukkah recipes from around the world

Latkes are only the result of one leg of the culinary journey of our people. (Sam Felder/Creative Commons via JTA)

The tradition of celebrating Hanukkah by eating fried foods has its roots in history. But which foods are associated most depends on where your family comes from or where you live. While I was aware of three – latkes, sufganiyot and sfenj – I didn’t know how potatoes, doughnuts and fried dough were culinarily connected, other than by frying. Looking at food in terms of the history of where we have lived may help to explain:

Sufganiyot go back to the 14th century Jewish diaspora. In addition to lighting menorahs each night, communities fried different types of dough in order to celebrate the role that oil played in the miracle. Initially the fillings were savory, but in the 16th century, when the price of sugar fell significantly, the traditional doughnut filling became jam. The modern sufganiya emerged in Israel in the 20th century, with the yeasty treat, like much of Israeli cuisine, a fusion of various traditions brought here by Jewish immigrants from around the world who began arriving in large numbers at this time.  Even its name, sufganiya, a twist on the Aramaic word sufganin, which appears in the Talmud referring to spongy dough and derived from the Greek word sfog, or sponge, embodies the eclectic history of this doughnut. (from myrecipes.com)

Sufganiyot, Israeli deep-fried jelly donuts (here’s a basic recipe), are traditionally sprinkled with powdered sugar, but the last number of years have seen them get fancier and fancier, with a growing variety of both fillings and toppings. Roladin Bakery is particularly known for its gourmet selection.

The Moroccan spongy fried dough called sfenj that are eaten by Jews (recipe here) for Hanukkah actually has its roots in Maghreb, and though similar to a beignet or zeppole, it is coated with honey or a simple syrup.

I’ve also become recently aware of Sephardic bumuelos or burmuelos.  This interesting and rich history describes not only their Ladino biblical origins, but notes how this fried dish, doused in honey (recipe here), is connected to similar dishes in Greece and Turkey.

Other fried delicacies exist throughout the world:

Bene Israel Jews from India are known for their milk-based fried pastry, gulab jamun. Jews in Poland adopted the local paczki, a donut filled with jam or jelly, and called them ponchiks. They are similar to the German Berliner donut.…Edda Servi Machlin’s “The Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews” describes a typical Hanukkah menu from her childhood days in Pitigliano, Italy, which included frittelle di Chanuka, which are diamond-shaped yeast cakes with raisins and anise seeds fried in oil and then coated with hot honey. (From elpasotimes.com)

And as for the connection of doughnuts or fritters to latkes? Well, it may actually come by way of Sephardim in Italy, where pancakes filled with ricotta cheese, cassola, were the norm – and they may have been adopted from a Slavic tradition. When Jews were expelled from Spain, this “also applied to Jews in the Spanish territory of southern Italy. Jews who left southern Italy brought their ricotta pancake recipe to Rome; it became cassola in the Eternal City and spread throughout northern Italy.” (This piece about the history is particularly interesting). And onward… Centuries later, an abundance of potatoes in Poland and Eastern Europe may have explained how cheese was replaced.

Latkes in Yiddish, levivot in Hebrew, these holiday dish of potato pancakes are Ashkenazi in origin and are made from potatoes (recipe here), although different vegetables may also used for variety. I tried grating once and gave up after shredding my knuckles along with the potatoes. So yeah…while I love learning about recipes, I must admit I’ve used mixes and, the last few years, hash brown potatoes as a base (recipe here). This year, pressed for time (my excuse and I’m sticking to it), we pan fried Trader Joe’s frozen potato pancakes and I can see why they are so popular. Tonight we will try baking them too (blasphemy, I know!).

Throughout history, Jews have experienced expulsions or have fled from their home even as far back as 733 BCE. But everywhere we’ve been, we’ve celebrated our holidays, and in every place we have “sojourned,” we have absorbed local culture. Food customs are especially interesting, because as they evolve, we see recipes that may not only reflect adapting local dishes to make them kosher, but also the prior history of emigres who arrived at each new place.

I see sharing recipes as an opportunity to meld different layers of our past as a people. And if it can also serve as a springboard to rediscovering and learning more about our rich Jewish history, culinary and otherwise, that would certainly be worth celebrating too!

About the Author
Born in Brooklyn and raised on Long Island, Wendy lived in Jerusalem for over a decade submerged in Israeli culture; she has been soaked in Southern life in metro Atlanta since returning to the U.S. in 2003. An Ashkenazi mom to Mizrahi sons born in Israel and the US, a DIL born in France and a step mom to sons born in the South, she celebrates trying to see from multiple perspectives and hope this comes out in her blogs. Wendy splits her time between her research position at the Center for Israel Education, completing dual master's degrees in public administration and integrated global communications, digging into genealogy and bring distant family together, relentlessly Facebooking, and enjoying the arts as well. All of this is to say -- there are many ways to see and understand.
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