Hanukkah celebration of food, light and latkes

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Hanukkah is known as the Jewish Festival of Lights, and is best known in the wider community by the lighting of a Hannukia — or a nine-branched menorah — each of the eight nights of the festival.

However, there are also foods associated with this festival of Jewish pride and identity.

The holiday celebrates the re-dedication of the great Temple in Jerusalem around the year 164 BCE. The word Hanukkah actually means "dedication."

According to the website Jewish Learning Works, in the year 167 BCE, Antiochus IV, one of the rulers of the Greek empire, which was then dominating Israel and Syria, "banned circumcision, Torah study, and observance of Jewish holidays and festivals and introduced pagan worship into the Temple in Jerusalem."

This didn't sit well with Mattathias, a priest in the town of Modiin, who refused to worship idols and make false sacrifices to them. He fled and then organized a three-year guerrilla rebellion. This lead to the defeat of the Greeks, culminated with an eight-day celebration to rededicate the temple. According to the Talmud, there was only enough oil to light the temple candelabrum for one day but, miraculously, it lasted for eight days.

"Since the story of the miracle is a story about oil, it's traditional to eat foods fried in oil. In Ashkenazic (Eastern European) tradition, this usually means potato pancakes. In Israel, it's common to eat 'sufganiyot,' jelly donuts," said Rachel Barenblat, rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams. "In some Spanish Jewish traditions, it's customary to eat 'bimuelos,' discs of crisp fried dough dusted with powdered sugar. 'Sfenj' are yeasted donuts made by Jews of Morocco, Libya and Tunisia."

This year, Hanukkah began at sunset Tuesday and runs until sunset on Wednesday, Dec. 24.

Sara Volovik, program director of Chabad of the Berkshires in Pittsfield, also referred to the history behind the foods of Hanukkah. While the most popular type of latkes are made from potatoes, some people make them with cheese or sweet potatoes or even ones containing spinach.

She also mentioned the tradition of dairy foods for Hanukkah. According to an article "Hanukkah Food Traditions" by Ariela Pelaia, dairy foods did not become popular until the Middle Ages. The story is that Judith of Bethulia saved her village and other Israelites by entering the Babylonian camp with a basket of cheese and wine. This she gave to the general Holofernes, who ended up drunk. Judith proceeded to behead him. This effectively put a stop to the Babylonian offensive.

Lora Block of Bennington, a member of Congregation Beth El, spoke of latkes served with sour cream and apple sauce.

Barenblat said that eating fried foods at Hanukkah "is a widely observed Jewish tradition in this country. Almost everyone I know makes, or eats, potato latkes at this time of year. Many of us also now make donuts, as well, in honor of Israeli custom."

She added, "Today, in addition to making potato pancakes, my husband, Ethan, also often makes a variation featuring sweet potatoes, purple cabbage and black sesame seeds, served with a soy and rice wine dipping sauce."

Rabbi Jarah Greenfield, of Congregation Beth El in Bennington, said Hanukkah today is about Jewish identity and Jewish pride and Jewish customs and bringing light into the darkness.

"We do a really fun take on the latke experience. We do a Hanukkah party at which we do a latke cook-off of sorts and then tasting by participants that gets judged," she said of Beth El. "You can find a lot of exotic recipes online for latkes, like curry latkes or scallion pancake latkes or fish latkes So that makes it really fun," she said. "The latke purists might disagree here, but it's kind of fun to mix things up."

Courtesy of Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

Sauce ingredients:

1/2 cup soy sauce

1/2 cup mirin (sweet rice wine)

1 teaspoon Asian-style chili-garlic sauce

1 piece fresh ginger, peeled and grated

1 bunch scallions (white part only), chopped (reserve green for latkes)

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Sauce directions:

In a bowl, combine the soy sauce, mirin, chili sauce, ginger, and scallions. Stir well and set aside.

LATKES ingredients:

1 large sweet potato, peeled

5 small all-purpose or russet potatoes, peeled

2 carrots

1 red onion

1/4 green cabbage, cut into thin strips

1/4 purple cabbage, cut into thin strips

1 bunch scallions (green part only), chopped

8 eggs

3 tablespoons sesame oil

1 piece (4 inch) fresh ginger, peeled and grated

3 teaspoons kosher salt

1/3 cup black sesame seeds

10 ounces matzo meal

Canola oil (for frying)

Directions:

In a food processor with the grating disk, grate the sweet and white potatoes, carrots and onion. Transfer to a mixing bowl. Add the green and purple cabbages and scallions. Toss to mix.

In a separate mixing bowl, beat the eggs with 2 tablespoons of the sesame oil. Add the ginger.

Stir the egg mixture into the potato mixture. Add salt, sesame seeds and matzo meal. Mix thoroughly. Use your hand to gauge the texture. A handful of the batter should just stick together, but not be too dry. If it's too dry, add more beaten egg; if it's too thin, add a little more matzo meal.

In a large skillet, heat enough oil to make a 1/4-inch layer. Add the remaining tablespoon sesame oil to the pan. Heat until the oil is hot. With a spoon, pick up enough batter to make 2-inch pancakes and gently ease them into the hot oil. Do not crowd the pan. Fry about 4 minutes or until golden on the bottom. Turn and fry on the other side until golden. Drain on paper towels. Serve with dipping sauce.


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