Move Over Latkes

by Terri

Geek Calligraphy is a multi-culturally Jewish establishment. I am as Ashkenazi as you can get - my ancestors come from all over Eastern Europe. While Ariela is of Ashkenazi descent, she now follows the Spanish & Portuguese Sephardi traditions of her husband.* 

 Crispy brown potato  latkes  on a plate.

Crispy brown potato latkes on a plate.

What does any of this have to do with latkes? Well, it turns out that Jews of different communities and cultures have different חנוכה (Hanukkah) traditions! I know, right? The potato latke is very much the American symbol of the holiday, but only belongs to the Ashkenazi traditionInterestingly, that tradition isn't even that old - potatoes didn't even arrive in Europe until the 16th century. What we now know as the "traditional latke" has gone through many transformations. It began as an Italian fried cheese dumpling, transformed into a buckwheat patty, and ended up as a potato pancake. Which is delicious with applesauce.

But what about Jews from other places? What do they eat on חנוכה (Chanukah)? 

 Two square waffles side by side in a waffle iron.

Two square waffles side by side in a waffle iron.

Spanish and Portuguese Jews eat waffles. Why? Because on on חנוכה (Hanukah) we celebrate נס ופלא (pronounced nes vafele). Read it out loud, then groan and insert rimshot. Because just like Ashkenazi Jews don't have a monopoly on Judaism, they also aren't the only ones to make terrible, terrible puns.

Jews in Tuscany eat chicken deep fried in lots of olive oil. Many traditional חנוכה (Chanukkah) foods incorporate oil either as an ingredient or as the cooking medium.*** This is to reference the story of the miraculous oil that burned for 8 nights during the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem. There is also an Italian tradition of eating dairy during this holiday (hence the original ricotta latkes), including a sort of cheesecake called a cassola. Eating dairy, specifically cheese, comes from an apocryphal text of the story of Judith and Holofernes in which Judith served salty cheese pancakes to Holofernes before getting him drunk and decapitating him. Though it is not technically a story that actually took place during the time of the Hasmonean revolt (it takes place several hundred years beforehand), it is connected to the story of חנוכה (Ḥanukah) because the stories were conflated during the Medieval period.

 Golden fried chicken pieces on a blue platter. There are cloves of garlic and rosemary sprigs scattered over the chicken, as well as a pile of lemon wedges. Yum.

Golden fried chicken pieces on a blue platter. There are cloves of garlic and rosemary sprigs scattered over the chicken, as well as a pile of lemon wedges. Yum.

 A large, synagogue style Indian  chanukiah . It is formed of a large six pointed star made of brass, with the 8 lights of the holiday in an arc around the bottom and the  shamash  (helper candle) near the center of the star. 

A large, synagogue style Indian chanukiah. It is formed of a large six pointed star made of brass, with the 8 lights of the holiday in an arc around the bottom and the shamash (helper candle) near the center of the star. 

I wanted to finish this post with some חנוכה (Janucá) traditions of the Indian Jewish community. The Indian Jewish community has a long history, with the community of Cochin, Kerala dating back to at least 562 BCE. In a time when news traveled by the speed of camel traders, communities were much more isolated. The Jews here didn't even celebrate חנוכה (Chanooka) until the immigration of other Jewish communities - they didn't know it was a holiday! Once the holiday became established, there seems to be a tradition of sweet foods and food fried in coconut oil eaten on the holiday. Among those foods are the Indian donuts gulab jamun. The Israeli sufganiyah (jelly/chocolate/dulce de leche/custard filled donut) is not the only fried sweet dessert associated with this holiday!

Another unique aspect of Indian חנוכה (Chanucah) celebrations are their traditional chanukiot. Instead of putting them in the window, Indian Jews hang them on the walls of their home.

So to conclude, there are as many traditional חנוכה (Hanucah) foods are there are Jewish communities. This year חנוכה (Hanuka) starts tomorrow night. Why not try waffles and gulab jamun along with the latkes when you celebrate!

 

 

 

 

 

*Ariela's adoption of Spanish Portuguese rite has nothing to do with heteronormative values wherein the wife must follow her husband's practice.** The number of Spanish Portuguese Jews has dwindled sharply in recent history and Ariela wanted to help prevent the custom's extinction.

**Note: some families divide adoption of customs differently. In my family, Matthew follows some of my long established customs rather than what his family does. I have also adopted some of his customs.

***Though the buckwheat version of latkes were fried in rendered poultry fat, since most oils were not to be found in abundance in 15th century Eastern Europe.