Story and photos by Sophie Panzer
North American Ashkenazi Jews may associate Chanukah celebrations with potato latkes and sufganiyot, but there’s nothing in the Maccabees’ story that says these are our only options.
For Jewish communities around the world, the tradition of eating fried foods during the Festival of Lights means holiday tables can feature fried meat, sweet and savory fritters and any kind of doughnut iteration imaginable. This year, I sampled four traditional Chanukah dishes from Italy, Spain, Latin America and India.
Pollo fritto per Hanukkah (Fried chicken for Hanukkah)
Having grown up with brisket or roasted chicken as the protein of choice at a Chanukah table, I was intrigued to find that Italian Jews traditionally celebrate the Festival of Lights with a special fried chicken recipe and wanted to give it a try.
I chose a recipe from Leah Koenig’s cookbook, “Little Book of Jewish Feasts.” It combines lemon, thyme and cinnamon in a quick marinade that makes the chicken moist and tender without requiring it to sit too long (if it does, the acid from the lemon juice will make the meat tough).
I had never had fried chicken made with lemon before, but it’s a pretty genius inclusion. The acidity cuts through the fat and prevents the dish from being overwhelmingly oily, which is especially welcome if you’ve still got piles of other fried deliciousness to plow your way through. I wouldn’t think to include cinnamon in a fried chicken recipe either, but it adds a nice depth of flavor.
Keftes de prasa
These leek fritters are a Sephardic holiday staple and are often eaten at Chanukah because they are fried in oil. They originated in the Iberian peninsula but can also be found in Turkish, Greek and Middle Eastern cuisine.
I found a simple recipe by Michael Natkin on Serious Eats that called for leeks, eggs, bread crumbs, herbs and salt. At least, it seemed simple until I started washing the leeks … and kept washing the leeks for what felt like two hours because they had so much grit in them. The batter comes out a little thinner than a typical latke, which threw me off as I tried to judge whether they were done, but I managed to avoid burning most of them.
Fine, half of them.
The keftes have a light, sweet, almost nutty taste when they’re cooked, and I could easily have eaten four or five at a time. The crispy fried texture definitely screams “Chanukah,” although these leek pancakes are a little less starchy and filling than a latke.
I was familiar with these fried sweets thanks to my moderate to severe obsession with Indian food, but I didn’t realize until recently that they were commonly enjoyed at Chanukah by Indian Jews.
“Gulab jamun is a traditional Hanukkah treat among the Bene Israel of Mumbai, as it combines the two primary holiday foods, dairy and fried,” Gil Marks wrote in “The Encyclopedia of Jewish Food.”
The desserts are made by cooking milk and flour in oil at a low heat. When they’re golden brown, the fritters are drenched in a spiced chini pani (sugar syrup) that often contains cardamom.
You can find gulab jamun at a lot of Indian restaurants. The small sweets have the consistency of a really rich cake doughnut — they definitely strike that decadent, deep-fried note you’d expect from a Chanukah dish. I also like pouring the leftover cardamom sugar syrup in chai tea.
Bunuelos, also known as bimuelos or bumuelos in Ladino, originated in Spain and Portugal and have become popular desserts in Latin American countries. You can find them served at Colombian or Mexican restaurants. They are commonly eaten by Sephardic Jews during Chanukah because, you guessed it, oil.
According to Ty Alhadeff, Sephardic studies research coordinator of the Stroum Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Washington, they are also eaten for biblical reasons. The first Ladino translation of the Torah published in Istanbul in 1547 read that the manna God provided to the Israelites in the desert tasted like bunuelo, or fritters, in honey.
They’re also quite simple to make at home — all you need is flour, sugar, yeast, water, salt and oil for frying. I made a batch that turned out a little less fluffy and round than the picture on My Jewish Learning (that recipe is adapted from Gil Marks’ book “The World of Jewish Desserts”) but the results were still a bit lighter and breadier than sufganiyot. They remind me of the fried dough you can find at carnivals dusted with cinnamon and sugar.
Although these desserts are technically Iberian and Latin American, I put a North American twist on mine by drenching them in maple syrup. No regrets.