Posted 26 December 2005 - 09:51 AM
There's an old Jewish joke that explains the way we celebrate our festivals. "They (the non-Jews) tried to kill us. They lost. Let's go and eat." The truth is that the joke only works for three of the many religious festivals that occur during the year: Purim (when the Persians lost), Pesach (when the Egyptians lost), and Hanukkah (when the Greeks lost), and each of them has developed its own culinary traditions, each one connected to what happened once upon a time.
Hanukkah, historically, is all about national self-determination. The Greeks, who under Alexander the Great had destroyed the Persian Empire and taken over the historical Land of Israel, wanted to impose their own polytheistic religion and culture on the very monotheistic Jews. They turned the Temple in Jerusalem, the centre of the Jewish religion, into a temple to Zeus, and went around the country demanding that the Jews start worshipping the whole Olympian pantheon. One unfortunate Greek officer who arrived at a village called Modi'in, between Jerusalem and what's now Tel Aviv, was stupid enough to tell the locals to worship Zeus, and added insult to injury by ordering them to eat pork, too. An outraged local priest, Matityahu, pulled out a sword, killed the Greek, and declared open rebellion against the occupiers. Many bloody battles later, led by Matityahu's son Yehuda (Judah), the Jews recaptured Jerusalem, removed the idols from the Temple and set about reconsecrating it.
What does this have to do with traditional Hanukkah food? Well, there was an eternal flame in the Temple, powered by specially produced olive oil, and this had to be rekindled as part of the ritual; but there was only enough oil to keep the flame going for one day, and it would take a week or more to get hold of more of the right oil. So they lit the lamp anyway and hoped for the best; a miracle happened, and the oil lasted for eight days, long enough for the new supply to arrive. So we traditionally do two things to celebrate: one is to light the Hanukkah candelabrum, which has eight flames (whether candle or oil-fed), plus one more from which to light the others; and the other is that we make foods fried in oil.
Traditional Jewish food, of course, is a matter of location and locally-available ingredients more than anything else. But what most European and American Jews think of as traditional Hanukkah food is two things: latkes, which are usually little potato pancakes something like roesti, fried in oil until golden brown; and sufganiot, Hebrew for doughnuts, made from yeast dough, deep-fried in oil and usually filled with strawberry jam, cream and the like. Except that in modern Israel, which likes to do things in style and by now can afford to do so, we have designer sufganiot. The best, not only in Swisskaese's and my humble opinion, but even according to a survey published in the financial supplement of this morning's Haaretz, come from a chain of cafe-bakeries called Roladin. Over the years we lived in Tel Aviv, our local Roladin, five minutes walk from the house, had crowds of people gathered outside on the first night, and every night, of Hanukkah, almost fighting to get to the front of the queue to buy their doughnuts, which became more and more inventive each year. This year, that's to say last night, Swisskaese and I stopped there for our annual calorie binge. The posters in the window announced that this was the year of the Caribbean-style Hanukkah: Jamaica (chocolate ganache and rum filling, coated with dark chocolate and walnut croquant); Aruba (creme patissiere, pineapple, coconut milk and pina colada filling, also with chocolate on the outside); and Havana (milk chocolate ganache with coconut milk and coffee liqueur inside, chocolate and caramelised peanuts on the outside). By the time I got to the front of the queue, of course, they only had the Jamaica specials left, so we got one of those, plus a whipped cream/chocolate and a dulce de leche/chocolate from the 'ordinary' stock.
We got home half an hour later, to discover to my chagrin that the soup I had left on a low flame a few hours before had turned into a terrible embarrassment surrounded by a small mushroom cloud of charred smoke. No, I don't generally burn food, let alone soup, but I had made the mistake of adding lentils to soup that was going to simmer for a long time, and they had soaked up so much of the liquid that the whole thing had become a dryish stew. Well, the turkey wings and beef and other ingredients actually tasted pretty good in what had become an accidental cholent (after we transferred them to another pot in order to keep the burned stuff out). And, after an hour's wait (we keep kosher, so we don't eat meat and milk together), so to the sufganiot. A big disappointment: they weren't actually bad, but after the previous years' triumphs (bitter chocolate and chili, for example), even the Jamaica wasn't so hot. We're going to have to try another upscale bakery, at least if we can sweat off a few calories before the end of the holiday. And since we're going to a wedding tonight, with the attendant calorie shock, I'm not so sure about that.
Oh, and to introduce myself. I'm really called David, and when not cooking, eating, writing or talking about the pleasures of the table, I'm the miserable wretch otherwise known as a high-tech entrepreneur whom Swisskaese mentioned in her earlier missive. Yes, I am planning to do a Hungarian night: my mother is Hungarian, as therefore were many of my earliest and most pleasurable gastronomic memories, and good hearty Hungarian peasant food is what we need, at least occasionally, to get us through the Hod Hasharon winter. It's not actually that cold, certainly not for those readers from Canada, Maine and so on, but we get as much rainfall in 60 days a year as London does in 150 (on Saturday we had 50mm of rain!); and the cheapskate building contractors who put up most of the housing in this country suffer from permanent Alzheimer's when it comes to insulating buildings against the cold.
So more from me later.
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