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Brief: Joyce Goldstein on Hanukkah Food

Brief: Joyce Goldstein on Hanukkah Food

Known as the Festival of Lights, Hanukkah lasts eight days, starting on the 25th day of Kislev from the Jewish calendar. It usually falls in December. And as with all the best holidays, it celebrates a miracle: After the Maccabee tribe recaptured ancient Jerusalem, the lamp in the temple appeared to hold only enough oil for one night but then amazingly continued to burn for eight days.

Like other Jewish holidays, Hanukkah begins at sundown when families gather around the dinner table. To commemorate the miraculous oil in the temple lamp, the candles of the menorah are lit each evening, and at least one fried food is featured prominently in the meal. (An entire menu of fried foods wouldn’t be nutritionally correct or easily digested!)

As you might expect, the variety of traditions of the Hanukkah dinner reflects the diversity of Judaism that resulted from the scattering of our ancestors. Ashkenazic Jews (from Central and Eastern Europe) traditionally serve potato pancakes called latkes. Some are enhanced with grated carrots, others with zucchini. Sephardic Jews, who originated in Spain and Portugal and migrated to other Mediterranean countries after the Inquisition, have a much broader repertoire of fried foods, including falafel made with chickpeas.

To me, the ideal menu for Hanukkah would be a simple meal of the family’s favorite comfort foods, simple and unpretentious—what I call "mom food"—featuring one or two special fried items. Food has, after all, a strong cultural continuum, and we celebrate that at the Hanukkah table, too.

—Joyce Goldstein, Author, Cucina Ebraica: Flavors of the Italian Jewish Kitchen (Morrow, 1998) and Sephardic Flavors: Jewish Cooking of the Mediterranean (Chronicle Books, 2000).