We’ve been told ad nauseam that we, and the Jews of centuries past, have eaten jelly doughnuts and potato latkes fried in olive oil since the Maccabees experienced the miracle of Chanukah.
The holiday commemorates the rededication of the Temple, after the Greek king Antiochus, leader of the Seleucid Empire, captured Israel and desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem in 165 BCE.
As the story goes, the Maccabees, led by Matityahu and his five sons, fought the Greeks and liberated Jerusalem three years later.
The miracle that Jews the world over still celebrate centuries later came about when the Maccabees worked to rid the Temple of false idols and discovered that there was only enough olive oil to fuel the menorah for a day, but it ended up lasting eight – as much time as was needed to make more oil.
“We eat latkes and sufganiyot, we eat things fried in oil because you’re supposed to remember the oil,” said Hart Fishman, partner and member of the founding family of Montreal’s Snowdon Deli, which opened in 1946.
Well, that’s only part of the story – one that, like the Chanukah treats we eat, has evolved over the centuries.
According to a 2010 article written by the late Gil Marks, author of the oft-cited Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, there are no records of any traditional Chanukah dishes until the 14th century, when Italian Jews fried ricotta cheese pancakes to celebrate Chanukah.
Marks explained that the custom of eating dairy on Chanukah was borne out of a “misunderstanding” of the Book of Judith.
We eat latkes and sufganiyot, we eat things fried in oil because you’re supposed to remember the oil
“The text, composed around 115 BCE, tells of Judith, a young widow from a town besieged by the Babylonians, (who) infiltrated the enemy camp, fed the commanding general salty cheese to induce thirst, plied him with wine to slack his thirst until the general fell into a drunken stupor, then cut off his head with his own sword,” Marks wrote.
“The timing of this story actually predates the Seleucid period by four centuries, but during the Middle Ages, when Jews no longer possessed the original text of Judith, the oral tale became associated with the Hasmonean revolution and Judith became variously the aunt or daughter of Judah Maccabee.”
Author Michael Wex, who most recently published his book, Rhapsody in Schmaltz: Yiddish Food and Why We Can’t Stop Eating It, explained that while Jews today associate the consumption of fried foods with Chanukah, the holiday used to be associated with dairy, the way Shavuot is, because of the story from the Book of Judith.
Wex said that over the centuries, the dairy custom fell by the wayside, because of the availability of schmaltz in the winter.
“Chanukah comes out around the same time they used to kill the poultry, especially the geese, before winter, because they wouldn’t survive. So they killed them and this is when they would render the schmaltz. They would make tonnes of schmaltz, which, of course, you can’t use if you’re having milchiks,” Wex said.
He said that potato latkes didn’t come about until Eastern Europe was introduced to potatoes in the middle of the 19th century. Before that, grain, like buckwheat (and even cow brains) was a popular base for latkes.
“I found so many recipes for brain latkes, as if the Maccabees were zombies or something,” Wex said.
“For my great-great-grandfather, a potato was to him what sushi or Thai food was to people like us – ubiquitous, but you could remember a very long time when it just didn’t exist, or you never heard of it. Potatoes were a big novelty.… You had this opportunity to use the schmaltz, which is just as oily as any of the oil you would find in a menorah.… That’s how we got the potato latke.”
Schmaltz was later replaced by Crisco’s pareve vegetable oil shortening, which was introduced in 1911, and it was after the shortening fell out of favour that olive oil became the top choice for frying.
So is the sufganiyah an even newer addition to the Chanukah tradition?
“Well, it is and it ain’t,” Wex said.
He explained that the Israeli word for jelly doughnuts is relatively new, but “there are two sources for the sufganiyah that you can sort of trace. The first one was in Eastern Europe – a sufganiyah in Yiddish is called a pompushke and that comes from a Ukrainian word. In Polish, they’re called paczki (pronounced pawnch-kee). They were like jelly doughnuts without a hole in them and they were filled with either fruit, jam or poppy seeds.”
While Ukrainians traditionally ate their doughnuts on Christmas Eve, Germans, whose version of jelly doughnuts were called Berliner Pfannkuchen, ate them on New Year’s Eve.
“If I had to guess, and that’s the most anyone can do here, probably 17th or 18th century,” is when fried jelly doughnuts began making an appearance, and Jews, influenced by the customs of the countries in which they lived, started making their own version of jelly doughnuts for Chanukah, said Wex. Later on, in Israel, they started to be called sufganiyot – the word is derived from the Hebrew word for sponge – because it absorbs the oil when fried.
Whether you’re a purist who won’t eat anything other than a classic latke or jelly doughnut, or are always on the lookout for the latest food trends, Canadian Jews have options.
Fishman said that at the Snowdon Deli, “we keep it straight up: flour, egg, salt, pepper, potato and onions. But every single thing here at the deli, we stick to the old-fashion recipe. We don’t deviate. I guess that’s why people still like to come here – because we give it the old-fashion way.”
That being said, the Snowdon Deli does serve a dish called a latke benny. “I put a spin on it, but it’s pure latke with poached eggs and grated Swiss cheese and hollandaise sauce,” said Fishman.
He said that although the recipe is simple, producing a proper latke takes a lot of work and patience.
“We use Prince Edward Island potatoes and we let it drain for hours, because you can’t make a latke when it’s wet, it would be too gloopy. Everything here takes time,” he said.
Chef Anthony Rose, who has made Jewish food in Toronto cool again by opening a number of popular restaurants – including Fat Pasha, Schmaltz Appetizing and Rose and Sons – said that people can find his latkes and sufganiyot year round.
“The latke recipe is based on Bonnie Stern’s recipe – it’s very simple – but we pan fry all our latkes in schmaltz and we serve it with my mom’s applesauce and sour cream and that’s it,” Rose said.
“The sufganiyot are based off more of a choux pastry, like how you would make gougères, or eclairs, or something like that. And they’re big and round and they’re not classic sufganiyot at all. However this year, for Chanukah, we’re selling classic latkes, not fried in schmaltz, and sufganiyot, which is based more off a brioche doughnut stuffed with wild blueberry jam. That is the only flavour we offer. We like to think that less is more.… I love the classics, so that’s kind of what we stick to.”
Although the latke recipe is classic, at Fat Pasha, Rose offers a latke sandwich this time of year.
“There’s sour cream and gravlax and chives and all that good stuff and the latke is like the bread,” he said.
“I think the most important thing is not to think so far out of the box.”
In Vancouver, Leah Markovitch, who’s been the owner of Solly’s Bagelry for about 24 years, said she sells between 12,000 and 13,000 latkes around the Chanukah season each year, as well as a few thousand classic jelly doughnuts.
“We don’t have a big Jewish community in Vancouver,” Markovitch said. “The majority of our customers are non-Jewish, except around the Jewish holidays. Then everyone comes out of the cracks.”
She said that although she’d be open to playing with the classic recipe by introducing carrots, zucchini and yams to the mix, “the older generation wants what it wants around the Jewish holidays.… People are connected by the food to their past.
“We’re not kosher, but we stick with tradition, because I think for a lot of the people who come here, they’re just hanging on to Judaism and the tradition. When you look at a storybook about latkes, you’re not going to see, ‘Bubbie pulled out the zucchini and her Nutella doughnuts.’ ”
Markovitch said she recognizes that the younger generation is more open to change, but she doesn’t think the Jewish community in Vancouver is big enough to offer anything too experimental.
“We work hard just to keep tradition here. When you’re in New York, there’s Judaism everywhere. When you’re in Toronto or Montreal, you’re in the middle of it, so you can say, ‘We’re going to try three different types of latkes.’ For us, it’s enough just to get the Jewish community coming out,” said Markovitch.
She said that if the purpose of eating latkes and sufganiyot on Chanukah is to eat oily food, younger people are likely asking themselves, “Why can’t it be a samosa? Why can’t it be anything? We’ve got no shortage of greasy foods. They’re looking at the rules and changing them.”
Moses Michael Oziel, owner of In The Manor, a kosher catering company in Toronto, is one of the chefs looking to change the rules.
He said that growing up in a Moroccan-Jewish household, he was served buñuelos, deep fried dough rolled in sugar, rather than the classic jelly doughnuts.
“Really, anything fried goes with Chanukah. If you can fry it, it’s customary to eat it,” Oziel said.
He said that in his experience, people are always looking for something different.
“I would say in this day and age, people definitely want excitement with their food. There is always a time and place for the traditional recipes, but I think that, generally speaking, if you take a traditional recipe and you change it up a little bit, most people would appreciate that to some degree,” said Oziel.
This year, he is offering a Chanukah menu that includes gluten-free quinoa and carrot latkes with tahini and scallions, sweet potato spring onion with shredded duck confit, aloo gobi latke with cilantro mint chutney and butternut squash latke with spiced pear compote.
Wex said that regardless of whether Chanukah dishes evolve, they won’t disappear.
“In a lot of cases, like Anthony Rose’s clientele, they are rediscovering stuff that their parents, or even grandparents, stopped eating a long time ago.… It’s lost that stigma that this is food for immigrants and working-class type people,” Wex said.
“As there’s been a reduction in religious observance and religious education, for so many people, these holidays, whether it’s Chanukah or Pesach or anything else, the food is the holiday.”
He said that it can be compared to the Christmas tradition of having a pine tree in the house, regardless of where you’re living.
“Even if you live in the south, where they have palm trees, they still buy at least fake pine trees for Christmas, because that is what a Christmas tree is. It’s got nothing to do with the religious aspect, but that’s what makes it Christmas. And I think it’s the same thing for Chanukah. Playing dreidel isn’t really that much fun if you’re older than four, but people do it anyway, because that equals Chanukah,” Wex said.
“Are people going to start making quinoa latkes? They probably are already, and why not? But I think the old classics will stick around for awhile. They might be added to, or changed, but I don’t think they’ll ever disappear. You can have a quinoa latke, as long as there is also a bin of potato latkes beside it. If you go to a place and they’ve only got quinoa latkes, you’re not going to trust them.”