Shemalias - fried dough ribbons for Hanukkah. Photography: Anatoly Michaello; Styling: Diana Linder
Shemalias - fried dough ribbons for Hanukkah. Photography: Anatoly Michaello; Styling: Diana Linder

The Forgotten Foods of Hanukkah

Latkes weren't always the quintessential Hannukah food. Get the real story of some of the forgotten dishes from the festival of lights

There is a common misconception that Jews celebrate Hanukkah with potato latkes, and in America that assumption is not far off since local custom has a way of trumping family tradition. I grew up just outside New York City, the city which boasts the largest Jewish community outside of Israel, where my grandmother’s Greek Sephardic culinary tradition was exclusively present at every holiday except for Hanukkah where Keftes de Prassa– or as we called them “Leek Bombs”- were served alongside the Ashkenazi potato latkes. And until I moved to Israel in my early 20s I didn’t realize those latkes represented a small subsection of the fried foods that different communities prepared to celebrate the Festival of Lights.

Before Hanukkah became associated with oil, it was associated with dairy. The origin of that custom is the story of Judith, daughter of a famous Rabbinical family who saved Jerusalem from occupation by the Babylonian army. Judith seduced Holofernes – the minister of the Assyrian army who wanted to conquer Jerusalem – and fed him salty and thirst inducing cheese, causing him to drink a good deal of wine and consequently fall asleep. While he slept she cut off his head and thus prevented the city from falling. In some communities, the dairy influence remains and cheese pancakes from Italy and Eastern Europe are made for the holiday.

However, once the connection between Hanukkah and fried foods had been firmly established, by Rambam’s father, Rabbi Maimon ben Yosef Chaim in the 12th century, most communities abandoned the dairy observance. In fact, it was only in the 16th century, when sugar became a cheap commodity in Europe that donuts even resembled what we know today (prior to this they were savory). The Eastern European sufganiyot became ubiquitous in Israel during the 8 nights of Hanukkah, in the early 20th century. Food researcher Gil Marks linked their popularity to the workers’ union and the influx of Jewish settlers into Israel who were in need of an income. The Labor Union encouraged bakeries and entrepreneurs to fry thousands of donuts for the holiday (recognizing the difficulty of making sufganiyot at home as well as their potentially addictive nature) and pushed them as a mandatory treat at gatherings and public events, and thus sufganiyot reached center stage. In recent decades their mass appeal has spread to the diaspora, but communities outside of Israel long had their own fried sweet treats to bring to the table with Sfenj from Northern Africa, Loukoumades from Greece, and bimuelos from Sephardic cuisine (with a kosher for Passover version made with matzah flour attributed to Turkey).

Yet, there are a slew of completely unknown Hanukkah treats that once reigned throughout Mediterranean communities. Perhaps the least well known donut-like delicacy is Fritella di Hanukkah from the Jewish community in Pitigliano – one of the oldest Jewish communities in Italy: small rhombuses of raisin studded, anise flavored yeasted dough are deep fried and drizzled with a honey-lemon syrup. Churros are associated with Mexican cuisine, but Genie Milgrom found a recipe (in a hidden suitcase with generations worth of family records and recipes) for a very simple Sephardic version of churros that her family prepared on Hanukkah.

Meanwhile, nearly extinct Shamelias, which were prepared across Sephardic communities in Greece and Turkey, are crunchy, delicious, and not overly sweet bows of orange and brandy flavored fried dough dusted with powdered sugar. When FOODISH posted the recipe for Shamelias on social media, we had dozens of followers who mentioned that they had their own version on this delightful treat from Hungary, Romania, Poland, Ukraine, and Lithuania all in different forms with different names from tzarisena hoyzen – “torn pants” in Yiddish- to the Romanian Minciunele, which literally translates to “little liars.”

Of course there are still other fried treats that were prepared for other holidays entirely. Puri, a treat traditionally eaten to break fast on Yom Kippur and also with a number of different filling options, for instance, could be an amazing stand in for donuts. Halva del Ajin, or “fake halva”, is made with tiny balls of almond flavored fried dough that is then covered in a caramel syrup and very closely resembles a brittle or toffee.

So for this Hanukkah, take a page from the playbook of the past and check out the vast culinary tradition of our global Jewish community- there’s at least one new recipe for every candle- and make sure to add any of your own family traditions to the growing collection of Jewish recipes so you can celebrate the miracle of the oil in more ways than one.

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