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Hanukkah Food Traditions

Celebrated much more fervently in the U.S. than in Israel, Hannukah is a Jewish holiday that usually occurs in late November or December. Known as a joyous event, it is a holiday full of tradition, something that is very much a part of the Jewish faith. Most Jewish children who practice their faith can tell you all about why they light candles, spin dreidels, and eat certain foods and will cite the stories of Hanukkah as among their favorites.
Like most holidays, food is a big part of Hanukkah and eating is often at the center of any Hanukkah get-together. Those gathered around the table understand that the foods they are about to eat commemorate certain miracles associated with the holiday, making the goodies in front of them even more special.

Hanukkah is not complete without several foods that connect to that first holiday many centuries ago, when it is said that the Syrian king Antiochus ordered the Jewish people to reject their religion and customs and to instead worship the Greek gods. A group known as the Maccabees fought for 4 years to drive the Syrians out of Israel and reclaim the Temple in Jerusalem. At the end of the battle, they cleaned the temple, and when all was complete, they needed to light the N'er Tamid or Eternal Light. There was only enough oil left for one day, but thanks to a miracle, the light remained for eight days.

Fried Foods

While even many non-Jews know this story, they may not know that it also has a connection to why Jews eat many fried foods for Hanukkah. Indeed, oil is used to fry many holiday favorites including latkes, delicious potato pancakes that have long been a staple of the holiday. While the oil connection is clear, the actual origin of latkes isn’t as apparent. Most believe, however, that they probably originated in Eastern Europe with the Jews living in Russia or Poland, where food was scarce in the winter, except for potatoes, which were cheap and readily available and could provide substantial sustenance for children who were otherwise ill-fed. Today, most Jews maintain the use of a typical potato latke recipe, despite its uncertain origins, but modern cooks looking for latkes with a twist sometimes use zucchini, carrots, or other vegetables instead.

Another popular fried food associated with Hanukkah is sufganiyot, a sweet, yeasty doughnut that is generally filled with strawberry or apricot preserves. Particularly popular in Israel, where it is common to find them being sold on the streets during the weeks prior to Hanukkah, most Americans would liken these to a typical jelly doughnut. Like latkes, they are eaten during the holiday because they are fried in oil, harkening back to the Maccabee story. You’ll often find them in a variety of shapes because they are not formed before dropping them in the hot oil. The finished product is usually dusted with powdered sugar or cinnamon. Some cultures add cheese to these pastries as well.

Dairy Foods

Dairy foods are also associated with the Hanukkah holiday. They are linked to a story about the Jewish heroine, Judith (Yehudith), who is said to have plied the Syrian governor with salty cheeses, forcing him to then consume lots of wine to quench his thirst which, in turn, caused him to eventually fall asleep. As he slept, she beheaded him. The next day, when the Syrian troops saw their beheaded governor, they fled. Judith is credited for saving her town and it is to her honor that dairy foods, like cheese, are part of the Hanukkah feast.

Other Favorites

Many families have also started their own Hanukkah traditions, and in the U.S. in particular, it is common to bake butter cookies in the shape of holiday symbols – like menorahs and dreidels – using the cookies to teach children the stories of the holiday. Other Hanukkah favorites might include brisket, kugel, blintzes, and gilt “coins” made of chocolate or cheddar cheese.