When Hanukkah begins Friday night, all around the world Jews will be preparing dishes that represent the holiday perfectly. The Ashkenazim will be frying potato latkes. In Israel they’ll be making sufganiyot, the little jam-filled doughnuts. Italian Jews will deep-fry pieces of chicken dipped in batter. The Sephardim will eat fritters in syrup, which are variously called zalabia, bimwellos, loukoumades, sfenj or yoyos.
It’s all about the oil, of course.
Each dish is a way of commemorating the miracle of the oil that was enough to burn only for one day but instead burned for eight as the Jews set about restoring the temple at Jerusalem in a time of war more than 2,000 years ago.
In Egypt, where I grew up, it was the zalabia that reigned at Hanukkah, and the fritters soaked in a sweet, perfumed syrup are still close to my heart, because they are a reminder of my parents, my brothers and grandparents, my cousins, uncles and aunts and of our home in Cairo. We could buy zalabia from street vendors year-round, but at Hanukkah they took on a symbolic significance and Awad, our cook, made masses of them, enough to serve all the visitors who called to celebrate.
Over the years I’ve learned to make and to love all of those other fried holiday dishes too. This is all simple food, representing very old traditions, not the gourmet creations of chefs who add trimmings for the sake of originality. And I think these dishes are all the more delicious for it.
The simplest, of course, is the potato latke, the golden pancake made with just eggs and grated potatoes squeezed dry of their starchy juices. They should be made just before eating, so they are crisp on the outside and soft inside. Many versions add ingredients such as onion and garlic, but I prefer the original basic dish, with the pure taste of potato.
Likewise, the pollo fritto, the Tuscan dish of tender, juicy chicken, pieces is sharpened with a simple lemon marinade and then rolled in flour and beaten egg. The scrumptious apple latkes, made with fruit macerated in brandy, are dipped in an ever so light batter.
And of course, there are the zalabia.
Some years ago, I was experimenting with the zalabia recipe in London when my grandson, then 7, happened to call. The following day Cesar came home from school with a drawing representing me, very tiny in the middle of a huge page, surrounded by bowls filled with little balls -- on the kitchen table, on the dresser, on the floor, everywhere. I had made so many batches while trying out different proportions of flour and water in order to get them to come out perfectly round, which they never did.
And really, the shape didn’t matter. They were incredibly light and puffy, and gorged in aromatic syrup. They were, in the end, another miracle, the culinary triumph of hot oil.