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It's all about fried food for Hanukkah. But it doesn't have to be latkes

Jews commemorate Hanukkah by eating fried foods. For most American Jews, that means latkes — potato pancakes fried in oil. But other cultures toss different foods into pots of boiling oil. Take, for example, these fried and jam-filled doughnuts, called <em>sufganiyot</em> in Hebrew, on display at a bakery in Kadima in central Israel.
David Silverman
Getty Images
Jews commemorate Hanukkah by eating fried foods. For most American Jews, that means latkes — potato pancakes fried in oil. But other cultures toss different foods into pots of boiling oil. Take, for example, these fried and jam-filled doughnuts, called sufganiyot in Hebrew, on display at a bakery in Kadima in central Israel.

Updated December 2, 2021 at 7:00 AM ET

Editor's note: This story was originally published in 2006.

Through the eight days of Hanukkah, it almost doesn't matter what you eat, as long as it's cooked in oil. A good case could be made for eating potato chips with every meal throughout the holiday.

The story goes that in 165 B.C., the Maccabees, a small band of pious Jews, led a revolt that defeated the powerful Hellenist imperial army. The Hellenist forces had mandated pagan rituals into Jewish life and desecrated the Jews' temple.

There was only enough consecrated olive oil left to keep the temple lamp burning for a single day, so a messenger was sent for more. When he returned to the temple eight days later, the lamp was still burning. And to celebrate this miracle, Jews cook with oil during Hanukkah, which begins Saturday.

For most American Jews, that means cooking up latkes — potato pancakes fried in oil. But other cultures toss different foods into pots of boiling oil. In Austria, Jews eat deep-fried breaded meat called schnitzel, and in Morocco, Hanukkah couscous features deep-fried, rather than boiled, chicken.

"Italian Jews are not latke people," writes Joyce Goldstein in Cucina Ebraica: Flavors of the Italian Jewish Kitchen. But deep-frying is an old Roman Jewish tradition, according to Goldstein, and cooks known as friggitori used to sell fried vegetables from street stands.

Today, restaurants in what was the Roman Jewish ghetto sell all kinds of deep-fried foods. One of the best known is carciofi alla Giudia, crispy-fried artichokes, Jewish style.

"The first time you eat one of these artichokes, it is so delicious, you will want to cry," Goldstein writes. She goes on to say, however, that the dish is difficult to make with American artichokes.

On Hanukkah, Italian Jews serve pollo fritto per Hanucca, fried chicken for Hanukkah; torzelli, a deep-fried curly endive that is a Roman specialty; any kind of fritto misto, mixed fry; and frittelle di zucca, squash fritters from the Veneto region.

In Israel, the national Hanukkah food is fried jelly doughnuts called sufganiyot. Some sources say the name comes from a Hebrew word for "sponge," and others that is from the Greek for "puffed and fried." Hundreds of thousands of these jelly-filled doughnut puffs rolled in sugar are eaten in Israel in the weeks leading up to the holiday and through the eight days of Hanukkah.

These yeast doughnuts, like other Middle Eastern dessert fritters, are probably descended from loukoumades, one of the oldest-known sweets.

Loukoumades and their like, however, are coated in a sugar-and-honey syrup, while sufganiyot are filled with jam or jelly and rolled in granulated sugar.

Much of the history of the Jewish people is reflected in this little doughnut. Eviction from many countries sent Jews all over the world, where they picked up culinary traditions from a variety of cultures.

Sephardic Jews were expelled from Spain and Portugal, and many settled in countries along the Mediterranean Sea, in North Africa, the Balkans, Italy, Syria and Palestine. Those who lived in the Middle East would have been familiar with the loukamades-like sweet fritters eaten in that part of the world.

Ashkenazic Jews from Germany, Austria and Eastern Europe brought a taste for jelly-filled doughnuts. Polish Jews, for example, ate traditional Polish doughnuts — called ponchiks — filled with preserves as a Hanukkah dish. The Israelis filled the Eastern fritter with the Western jelly and created the sufganiyot.

Sweet or savory, Middle Eastern or Italian, there is no shortage of options for Hanukkah dining. The only real requirement is that whatever you eat, it's made with oil.

Sufganiyot (Jelly Doughnuts)

This recipe for the Israeli national Hanukkah treat is adapted from Joan Nathan's Jewish Holiday Cookbook. (Schocken Books 1979) For non-greasy fritters, watch the temperature of the oil. It should remain at 375 degrees. If it's not hot enough, the dough will absorb oil, and if it's too hot, the outside will brown before the inside is cooked. Sufganiyot are best served hot and fresh.

Makes 30 to 35

2 tablespoons dry yeast

3 1/2 tablespoons sugar

3/4 cup lukewarm milk

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

2 egg yolks

Pinch of salt

Pinch of cinnamon

1 1/2 tablespoons butter or margarine, softened

Berry or plum preserves

Peanut oil for deep-frying

Granulated sugar for rolling the doughnuts

Dissolve the yeast and 2 tablespoons sugar in the milk.

Sift the flour. Place it on a board or in a bowl and make a well in the center. Add the yeast mixture, egg yolks, salt, cinnamon and remaining sugar. Knead well. Add the butter or margarine and knead until dough is elastic.

Cover with a damp cloth and let rise 2 hours.

Sprinkle flour on board. Roll the dough out thin (1/2 to 1/8 inch). Cut out with a glass into rounds about 2 inches in diameter. Cover and let rise 15 minutes more.

Pour 2 inches of oil into a heavy pot and heat to 375 degrees.

Drop the doughnuts in the oil, 4 to 5 at a time, turning when brown. Drain on paper towels.

With a tiny spoon, take some jam and fill the sufganiyot. Insert the spoon in the top of the doughnut, revolve it inside the doughnut and remove from the same hole made on entering.

Roll in granulate sugar and serve. You can make the sufganiyot larger if you like.

Eat while hot.

Fritelle di Zucca (Squash Fritters from the Veneto)

In Italy, pumpkin fritters are considered a good Hanukkah dessert. This recipe is adapted from Joyce Goldstein's Cucina Ebraica: Flavors of the Italian Jewish Kitchen (Chronicle Books 1998). She cautions that it's hard to find a squash or pumpkin that weighs exactly 1 1/4 pounds. Just be sure the milk covers the cubed squash, and add enough flour so the mixture has the consistency of sour cream. Adjust the sugar to taste, since squashes vary in sweetness. Butternut squash is usually sweeter than pumpkin.

Makes 6 servings

1 butternut squash or pumpkin, about 1 1/4 pounds

2 cups milk, or as needed

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, or as needed

2 teaspoons baking soda dissolved in 2 teaspoons water

2 eggs

Pinch of salt

2/3 cup granulated sugar, or to taste

Grated zest of 2 oranges

1/3 cup golden raisins

1/2 cup pine nuts, toasted

Peanut oil for deep-frying

Confectioners' sugar for topping

Halve squash or pumpkin, scoop out and discard seeds and fiber, peel and cut into 1/2-inch dice. You should have 3 to 3 1/2 cups. Place in a saucepan, add milk to cover and place over medium heat. Bring to a simmer and cook until the squash breaks down into a smooth puree, about 30 minutes. Don't worry if the mixture looks curdled; it will smooth out.

Stir in the flour and continue to stir until the mixture is thick, about 5 minutes, adding more flour as needed to bind. Beat in the dissolved baking soda, and then the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the salt, granulated sugar, orange zest, raisins and pine nuts. Remove from heat. Let stand for about 15 minutes until most of the moisture has been absorbed.

Pour oil to a depth of 3 inches in a deep-frying pan or wok and heat to 375 degrees. In batches, drop the batter by small (1-inch diameter) teaspoonfuls into the hot oil. (These should not be large or the center will not cook.) Fry until golden, 3 to 5 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer to paper towels to drain briefly. Keep warm until all the fritters are cooked.

Arrange the fritters on a platter and sift a heavy dusting of confectioners' sugar over the top. Eat while hot or very warm.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR commentator Bonny Wolf grew up in Minnesota and has worked as a reporter and editor at newspapers in New Jersey and Texas. She taught journalism at Texas A&M University where she encouraged her student, Lyle Lovett, to give up music and get a real job. Wolf gives better advice about cooking and eating, and contributes her monthly food essay to NPR's award-winning Weekend Edition Sunday. She is also a contributing editor to "Kitchen Window," NPR's Web-only, weekly food column.
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