A Food Lover's Guide to Hanukkah

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Hanukkah, which is also known as The Festival of Lights, is a joyous holiday on the Jewish calendar. Celebrated during the chilly winter, it brings warmth and light — both figuratively and literally — into people's homes. Families gather together to light a menorah (candelabra), which is set near a window so the candles' glow emanates outward into the street. They spin four-sided tops called dreidels. And, most importantly for our purposes, they eat all sorts of comforting, delicious fried foods.

Whether your personally celebrate Hanukkah, or are just really into deep frying, here is a guide to Hanukkah's many tasty food symbols and customs.

Oil

When it comes to food, Hanukkah's primary theme is oil. The holiday commemorates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after a small Judean army called the Maccabees recaptured it from the ancient Greeks. According to legend, the Maccabees were only able to find enough olive oil to light the Temple's menorah (candelabra) for one night. But miraculously, the oil lasted for eight full days and nights. Today, Jewish families all over the world celebrate their own "miracle of oil" by indulging in all matter of fried foods.

Latkes

In America, the most popular expression of Hanukkah's love affair with oil is evident in the Eastern European potato pancakes known as latkes. The first latkes were originally made from farmer cheese or other soft cheeses, and are akin to Italian ricotta fritters. It was not until the late 18th century that potatoes, a New World ingredient that took a while to catch on in Europe, became the primary latke base.

Today, potato pancakes are fried by the dozen during Hanukkah and served topped with sour cream and applesauce. Some cooks also sub in other vegetables like sweet potatoes, squash, turnips, or beets.

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Sufganiyot

In Israel, sufganiyot (fried jelly doughnuts) reign over latkes on Hanukkah. The custom of frying doughnuts on Hanukkah traveled with Polish immigrants to Israel, where it grew into a national obsession. The puffy doughnuts typically come filled with raspberry or strawberry jam and are rolled in sugar or dusted with confectioners' sugar. In recent years bakeries have gotten creative, filling their sufganiyot with everything from halva and pistachio cream to dulce de leche, and drizzling them with an array of colorful glazes. Over the last few decades, sufganiyot have begun to make inroads in America as well. It is not uncommon to find a Hanukkah table here weighed down by both fried treats.

Global Frying

In other parts of the world, Jewish communities have their own deep fried traditions. Syrian Jews typically fry pumpkin patties called yatkeen on Hanukkah, while Sephardic Jews make honey sweetened fried dumplings called bimuelos, or fried leek patties called keftes de prasa. In Italy, Hanukkah traditionally means fried chicken or sweet rice fritters called frittelle di risk.

Regardless of what is in the pan, as long as there is oil involved, the holiday celebration is complete.

Gelt

On Hanukkah, people share and eat gelt, small chocolate coins wrapped in silver and gold foil. The tradition dates back to the 18th century in Eastern Europe where Jews customarily gave small monetary gifts on Hanukkah, originally to their children's teachers, and later to the kids themselves. In America, candy companies like Barton's and Loft's introduced chocolate coins in the 1920s.

Today, Jews share and eat millions of pieces of gelt each year, most of it imported from Israel and the Netherlands. In recent years, a few companies like Divine Chocolate, Lake Champlain Chocolates, and Veruca Chocolates have started to make artisanal and fair trade versions of the holiday candy.

What are your favorite foods and traditions on Hanukkah? Are you doing anything special this year, as Thanksgiving and Hanukkah fall on the same day?

More posts in this series

A Food Lover's Guide to the Jewish Holidays

(Image credits: blueeyes/Shutterstock; Boris-B/Shutterstock)