Hanukkah, the yearly Festival of Lights, is the only major Jewish holiday not based on the canonized Hebrew Bible.
It commemorates the cleansing and rededication of the temple in Jerusalem, when the triumphant Maccabees returned and found only enough oil to light the menorah (eight-branched candelabrum) for one night. Miraculously, the single day's supply lasted the entire eight days of the joyous time. Hence the importance of oil and the traditional fried foods honoring and remembering the ancient miracle.
For most Americans, Jewish Hanukkah fare is typified by potato latkes and other foods of the Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jews. Their numbers outstrip the smaller population of Sephardic Jews - those who lived in North Africa, Turkey, and the Middle East.
This accounts for a general unfamiliarity with the wonders of Sephardic Jewish kitchens. While the enjoyment of treats fried in oil has to do with Hanukkah's culinary history, not all Jewish customs are the same.
As a graduate student in the Northeast, I was an enthusiastic devourer of latkes (Yiddish for potato pancakes), the quintessential Ashkenazi Hanukkah treat. To me and most of my Jewish friends, the browned, lacy circles of grated onion and potatoes were the savory heart of December. We dreamed latkes, we cooked latkes, and we ate latkes - warm, fragrant, high-caloric and unforgettable - fried in sizzling oil and slathered with spicy applesauce or snowy sour cream.
In contrast, the traditional holiday fare of Sephardic Jews is grounded in their distinct Spanish and Portuguese origins. Spices like cumin, saffron, fenugreek, and cinnamon are common; pomegranate juice and dried apricots come into play; and grains replace potatoes.
Expelled from the Iberian peninsula in 1492 by Ferdinand and Isabella, and in the face of the Inquisition, the Sephardim sought refuge within the Ottoman Empire. The scattered exiles settled in North Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America.
Evidence allows that the broad range of Jewish holiday specialties may be traced to geography. In both cultures, the emphasis on sweets is notable. Joan Nathan, in her book "The Jewish Holiday Kitchen" (Schocken Books, $19.95), discusses the contemporary distinctions between the Ashkenazic and the Sephardic communities' celebrations of Hanukkah: "Culinary customs, like those of the Jews in the Ukraine, were probably taken from the surrounding peoples."
Ms. Nathan goes on to mention the Greek loukomades and the Persian zelebi. In both, the use of honey or dusting with sugar appears. Recipes for Israel's sufganiyot appear in cookbooks under the familiar name of jelly doughnuts.
Years after graduation, as a CBS stringer living in Mexico City, I had my first introduction to the intricacies of the Sephardic culture. As a "disaster reporter," I was sent to cover a 1957 earthquake. Two of my subjects were owners of an antique shop whose collection of priceless Oriental porcelains lay in shards. After recording several segments, I put down my equipment and grabbed a broom. We rested and drank Turkish-style coffee, and a warm friendship began.
The owners, Sephardic Jews, had typically tangled geographic origins. They were devoted first cousins whose parents had come from towns on the borders of Greece and Yugoslavia.
Several months later I was welcomed to my first Sephardic Hanukkah feast. What glorious menus the women concocted and what irresistible fragrances those kitchens produced. The Sephardim create and re-create, introducing and integrating a world cuisine that far too few of us have the privilege to savor.
Rabbi Marc Angel of Congregation Shearith Israel, known as the Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue in New York and Newport, R.I., has written that Sephardim are not a monolithic group. "Their practices vary significantly from country to country ... even from community to community within a country. By examining their gastronomic traditions, specific aspects of their Jewishness become apparent."
Climate has also been a factor in both the migration of Sephardic families and the shaping of the dishes. The early Sephardim were sun-lovers, children of warmer climes; they came from areas where growing seasons were long and produce abundant, and tropical fruits, nuts, grains, and spices common. The use of oil, and in particular olive oil, rather than the chicken or goose fat of the Askenazim, is customary.
In North Africa, couscous with dried dates and apricots is a common side dish. The sixth night of Hanukkah in Morocco is also Rosh Hodesh (the New Moon). Moroccan Jews feast on a special meal followed by several sweets. In Tunis, daughters and wives are honored with gifts, often consisting of beribboned wooden boxes of halvah or almendrada (a kind of marzipan).
For those with an adventuresome palate, the adjectives "seraphic" and Sephardic might be interchanged. The sharing of food acts as a kind of cosmic glue among peoples - an understanding and respect for the food's origins heightens enjoyment and broadens minds and hearts.
Anna Siegel's Carrot Pancakes
Cookbook author Joan Nathan quotes the Siegel family as saying the origins of this recipe are in dispute. "Galicia or Italy ... after all, what would a Jewish family be without vigorous discussion!"
1 green bell pepper, diced
1 red bell pepper, diced
1/4 cup vegetable oil plus oil for frying
6 medium carrots, peeled and quartered
About 1 cup matzo meal
Salt to taste
1 16-ounce can tomato sauce
2 tablespoons sugar
Saute the peppers in 1/4 cup oil until soft. Drain and set aside.
Place half the carrots and 3 of the eggs in a food processor. (If you have a large food processor, you will be able to make the entire mixture in one batch.) Process until carrots are medium-fine. Pour into a large bowl and repeat with remaining carrots and eggs. Stir in the matzo meal and salt to taste. The carrot mixture should be somewhat loose, but firm enough to form into patties about 4 to 5 inches across. Mix in a bit more matzo if necessary.
Heat a thin film of oil in a frying pan. Fry pancakes until light golden (about 4 minutes on each side).
Remove to paper towels to drain. Repeat until all batter is used. You should end up with about 6 pancakes.
Layer into a shallow casserole.
Mix tomato sauce with sugar, peppers, and 1/4 cup water. Pour sauce over pancakes and bake, uncovered, in a 325 degree F. oven for 30 minutes.
Serves 3 to 6.
- Adapted from 'The Jewish Holiday Kitchen,' by Joan Nathan (Schocken Books)
Fritadas de Calabaza (Turkey)
1 can (16 ounces) cooked pumpkin
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
Dash ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon salt
Vegetable oil for frying
Combine all ingredients and mix well to form a thick batter.
Heat about 2 inches of vegetable oil in a heavy skillet and drop batter by well-rounded tablespoonfuls into oil. Fry until golden on both sides. Drain on paper towels and serve hot.
Dust with confectioners' sugar.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society