Food Traditions that Honor Hanukkah
If you are unfamiliar with the food traditions of Hanukkah, you might be interested to know that the typical menu for this celebration isn’t really all about keeping kids happy. Of course, it’s true that stacks of crispy deep-fried potato latkes, sweet cream cheese rugelach, jam filled donuts, and cheese blintzes will tend to keep kids gathered around the menorah, but there is still more to the story.
There are reasons why certain dishes are on the table during Hanukkah. Foods served during this celebration are meant to remind us of the miracles of Hanukkah. Let’s take a look at some simple explanations of the source of the traditions and a few ways meals were created to use these foods.
The miracle of the oil and the menorah are familiar to many of us. Hanukkah celebrates Jewish freedom over religious persecution. The eight days of celebration and the menorah honor the miracle of the olive oil. Upon returning to the temple after victory over Greek oppression, there was found only one small flask of olive oil to burn, which should have lasted one day. However, the oil lasted eight days, giving us the miracle of the menorah. This is why Hanukkah is celebrated for eight days and why olive oil is used at great liberty in foods during this holiday.
We also honor the memory of a young woman by the name of Yehudis, who devised a plan to kill a Greek general during the war. The story tells us she fed the general a great deal of cheese, followed by enough wine to make him fall into a deep sleep, at which time she bravely killed him. When word of his death reached the general’s army, they fled. We remember this woman’s bravery and celebrate the freedom gained by her act by serving many delicious cheese filled treats.
Olive Oil and Cheese Food Traditions
From these two basic foods used during the Hanukkah celebration come specific dishes that are staples within many Jewish communities. The traditional foods may vary slightly, but finding ways to incorporate olive oil and dairy products connects Jewish people around the world.
Pastries known as sufganiyot are very well known. They are quite absorbent, soaking in lots of the olive oil they are cooked in. They may be sweetened and filled with fruit jellies or honey, making them quite popular and a staple in many Jewish homes today.
Adding cheese to these pastries was a natural choice, celebrating two traditions at once. Cheese filled pastries were a standard Hanukkah treat throughout central Europe, while in Germany the pastries were more often filled with jellies and jams. The Indian version of this pastry combined sugar, honey, milk, and butter with the yeast and flour to create another nod to dairy.
Where olive oil was scarce, in the northern climates, goose or chicken fat was used for frying. Also in these colder climates, potatoes and apples were abundant, making potato latkes and apple fritters a staple during Hanukkah. Along with potatoes and apples, dairy products were plentiful in these colder regions. Out of these foods grew the tradition of serving sour cream and applesauce over the potato latkes. Jewish families would use what was available to best honor the teachings and the stories of the battle for religious freedom.
Deep fried latkes are served in practically every Jewish home during Hanukkah. Whether as a main dish or as crispy little appetizers, they are definitely a favorite dish for many. The tradition of serving latkes is based on the assumption they are fried in olive oil, symbolizing the miracle of the oil in the Temple.
Of course, olive oil, cheese, and any dairy product can be served in ways that are healthier. You don’t need to drop potatoes into a vat of olive oil to honor the miracle. You can, instead, dress a fresh salad with pure pressed extra virgin olive oil. Perhaps, you can replace the sugary cream cheese filled pastries with a mixture of cream cheese with fresh fruit and serve as a spread. You can even still enjoy your pastries, just pan fry them quickly to limit the amount of olive oil they absorb.
Fill your Hanukkah buffet with all the traditional foods your family loves, but remember; the Hanukkah food traditions are about honoring the memories and the miracles. A little bit of pure olive oil and fresh cheese served in healthy combinations is a lovely way to remember.