It's all about the oil. 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 ends at sunset Saturday.
For most American Jews, that means 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.