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Hanukkah Food Traditions

Updated on September 22, 2017
© Roman Sigaev -
© Roman Sigaev -

Fried foods and cheesy delicacies will feature strongly at Jewish tables from sunset on 16 December 2014, this being the 25th day of the month of Kislev in the Jewish calendar. It marks the beginning of Hanukkah (or Chanukah) - the Festival of Dedication, or the Festival of Lights, and lasts for 8 days.

Hanukkah commemorates the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem in 164 BCE after its sacking by the Syrian Antiochus IV.

Chanukah Table. Image: © JirkaBursik|
Chanukah Table. Image: © JirkaBursik|

History of Hanukkah Food Traditions

The Hanukkah food traditions include a festive dish of roast goose, or dishes of goose crackling - on its own or in dumplings such as fleyshik vareniki, which comprises dough stuffed with mashed potato, fried onions and crackling. Goose was apparently the bird eaten by the victorious Judah Maccabee and his men at that time.

The Russian Jews have a special "flaming tea" ceremony, in which a brandy-soaked lump of sugar is lit and then dropped into a glass of tea.

However, the most universally practised food tradition is that of eating fried foods at Hanukkah. This stems from the story of the miracle of the oil at the re-dedication of the Temple, one of several legends associated with the ritual lighting of a special eight-branched candelabrum - the hanukkiyyah or Hanukkah menorah - which became central to this festival.

According to the legend, only one jar of olive oil had not been defiled before the Temple was re-taken. It should have been enough to keep the lamp going for only one day, but it kept burning for eight.

Soufganioth. Image: © Eduard Idelson -
Soufganioth. Image: © Eduard Idelson -
Potato Latkes. Image: © Lisa F. Young|
Potato Latkes. Image: © Lisa F. Young|

Thus, foods fried in substantial quantities of oil are eaten at Hanukkah, with different countries having their own specialities.

Fritters of yeast and flour, dipped in syrups scented with honey or rose or orange blossom water, variously called bimuelos in Spain, zalabia in Egypt, and zengoula in Iraq, Iran and India, are popular.

In Israel, jam-filled doughnuts called soufganioth are the go. Moroccans mark the occasion with sfenj (orange doughnut rings) and deep-fried - rather than the more commonly boiled - chicken with their couscous.

In Italy, antipasto plates include marinated, battered and deep-fried chicken pieces.

Potato latkes feature at the Eastern European Hanukkah table. Latkes were originally cheese, rather than potato, fritters. Potatoes were substituted for cheese by Eastern Europeans, as milk was scarce in those regions in December.

Cheese Blintzes. Image: © Elzbieta Sekowska -
Cheese Blintzes. Image: © Elzbieta Sekowska -
Judith with the Head of Holofernes. Image: © Georgios Kollidas -
Judith with the Head of Holofernes. Image: © Georgios Kollidas -

Why Cheese-y Foods Are Eaten At Hanukkah

Eating cheese-based foods such as cheese blintzes, cheesecakes and rugelach (cream cheese-based pastry crescents filled with raisins and walnuts) have been a Hanukkah practice since the Middle Ages, in honour of the heroine Judith, whose story is associated with this festival.

Her town of Bethulia in Judea was besieged by Holofernes, a general from Asia Minor. Judith went to the general on the pretext of assisting him in capturing the town. Instantly enamoured of her, he allowed himself to be wined and dined.

She fed him a surfeit of salty cheese, which caused him to drink copious quantities of wine. When he fell into a drunken sleep, she beheaded him with his own sword.

Olliebollen. Image: © Steve Lovegrove|
Olliebollen. Image: © Steve Lovegrove|

Recipe: OLLIEBOLLEN (Dutch Doughnuts)

Celebrate Hanukkah with Jewish friends with these Dutch doughnuts. You could also try substituting dried sour cherries for sultants to add a nice tart counterpoint to sweetness.

This recipe makes about 40 doughnuts.


1 tsp dried yeast
1 tsp sugar
200 ml warm milk
Pinch salt
2 eggs, lightly beaten
10 g butter, softened
100 g sultanas
1 Granny Smith or other tart apple
Oil for deep frying
Icing sugar to dust fried doughnuts


  • Dissolve yeast and sugar in a few tablespoons of milk. Set aside until frothy (about 10 minutes).
  • Peel and core the apple. Cut into tiny dice.
  • Sift the flour together with the salt. Gradually mix in beaten eggs, milk, yeast mixture and butter. Beat until smooth and elastic. Cover the bowl with a damp cloth and leave the batter to rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk (about 1 hour).
  • Mix in sultanas and diced apple.
  • Fry teaspoons of batter in medium-hot oil (160°C to 170°C) until puffed and deep golden brown. Drain on kitchen paper on a wire rack.
  • Toss in icing sugar and serve immediately.


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