As a kid, I’m not sure which I looked forward to more during the winter holiday season—receiving a gift each of the eight nights we celebrated Hanukkah (either small, like a book or a pair of socks, or big, like a toy I’d been wishing for) or the meal my mom made for the occasion. My family and I indulged with joyful abandon on tender slices of beef brisket swimming in a savory onion-laden gravy and shredded potato latkes—crispy on the outside, fluffy on the inside—topped with applesauce or sour cream. But I never really stopped to think about where these food traditions came from.
Chowhound spoke with a Jewish food historian and a Food Network star to learn the history of Hanukkah food in the U.S. and how it has evolved over time.
Jewish Cuisine Rich in History (and Fat)
“I feel that, in trying to elevate Hanukkah from a minor holiday to a major one, Jews really knocked it out of the park with latkes, because potato latkes are everything a french fry is and more. You know, that extra crunch, those caramelized sugars giving it a deeper potato taste,” says Jayne Cohen, food historian and author of “Jewish Holiday Cooking: A Food Lover’s Treasury of Classics and Improvisations.”
Jewish Holiday Cooking: A Food Lover's Treasury of Classics and Improvisations by Jayne Cohen, $34.18 on Amazon
With a wide-ranging collection of traditional Jewish recipes and modern twists (including vegan variations), plus practical advice and creative suggestions, this is more than a cookbook, but a holiday handbook.
Foods cooked in oil, such as latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts), are traditionally enjoyed during Hanukkah to commemorate the story behind the holiday. According to Jewish texts, Judah Maccabee and his followers were participating in the rededication of a temple around 200 B.C. when they witnessed a miracle: a small amount of olive oil that should only have lasted one night kept candles burning for eight nights instead (thus, the eight night celebration of Hanukkah).
However, the latkes of yore were pretty different from those we eat today. Before potatoes came to Europe, they were made with cereal grains like rye and buckwheat, or root vegetables, such as carrots and turnips. Depending on where Jewish people lived, olive oil was either extremely expensive or hard to find, so they also often cooked their latkes in animal fat. This may explain why rich cuts of meat, such as brisket, and even goose, were often made during Hanukkah, since the fat that cooked off them could then be used to fry up a batch of latkes.
“Potatoes didn’t really become an important food for Jews until the mid-19th century,” Cohen explains. “That’s when they made their way into Germany, and then Eastern Europe. It wasn’t until then that they became so important to the Jewish diet for making things like latkes and kugels.” American Jewish food traditions offer a surprising amount of variety. Take latkes’ marvelous versatility and evolution as part of American Jewish cuisine, for example. Cohen remembers seeing a latke recipe in a Crisco cookbook dating back to the 1930s that called for using spinach as the main ingredient. As different groups from the diaspora became part of the Jewish communities across the U.S., they brought their own interpretations with them, whether it’s adding jalapeños to their latkes or topping them with smoked salmon and caviar.
Festival of Bites
“Latkes in the U.S. have sort of been like a blank canvas to experiment on,” Cohen states, “with toppings, added ingredients or the changing of basic ingredients.” One of her favorite ways to eat them is with butter and pomegranate syrup.
Hanukkah is also associated with eating dairy products as a result of the Maccabee story somehow getting conflated with the story of Judith, considered a heroine of Jews in the Middle Ages. Legend has it that Judith fed a cruel enemy a meal that included very salty cheese, which caused him to drink a lot of wine and enabled her to kill him in his drunken stupor to save her people from persecution. So it’s not uncommon for Jewish Americans to eat cheese blintzes, make their latkes with cottage cheese, and top both with sour cream to celebrate the holiday.
Meanwhile, doughnuts first became popular in Germany, where they were stuffed with fruit like apricots. “Then they became popular in Poland for Hanukkah,” says Cohen. Polish immigrants brought them to Israel, and from there, they came to the U.S. “A lot of people think they came from the Sephardic community,” Cohen explains, since Sephardic Jews eat bunuelos, a yeast-risen doughnut, for Hanukkah, but she poses this is not the case.
A New Generation of Hanukkah Foods
Molly Yeh, author of “Molly On The Range” and host of Food Network’s “Girl Meets Farm,” grew up making traditional Hanukkah foods like latkes and sufganiyot. “My least favorite part of those traditions was having to wait for the oil to heat up, I was always so impatient!” she writes via email.
Yeh is no stranger to coming up with innovative takes on traditional dishes. If you search her popular food and lifestyle blog, my name is yeh, you’ll find numerous creative Hanukkah recipes, like brussels sprout latkes with balsamic dijon sour cream and rose jam sufganiyot with vanilla glaze and pistachios. One of her favorite interpretations is sufganiyot filled with onion jam and tomato jam and dusted with za’atar and yogurt powder. “I love savory sufganiyot,” she enthuses. “Savory doughnuts are underrated.”
Molly on the Range: Recipes and Stories from An Unlikely Life on a Farm by Molly Yeh, $17.92 on Amazon
This book is full of delicious recipes celebrating the author's Jewish and Chinese heritage—and life on a Midwestern farm.
“Every year I love thinking up new sufganiyot flavors and new things to put on top of latkes,” Yeh explains. “A few years ago we put scoops of chocolate ice cream on top of latkes. It was just like dipping fries in a milkshake.” She adds, “There was some skepticism directed toward the latke ice cream sundae, but the few people who tried it liked it!”
Crispy latkes, savory brisket, and mouth-watering sufganiyot make for quite the decadent meal. Whether you choose to stick with tried and true traditional recipes or go wild experimenting with flavors and ingredients, it would probably be considered a Hanukkah miracle if you end up with any leftovers from the celebration.
Related Video: How to Make Apple Cider Sufganiyot with Salted Caramel Filling
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