Global Hanukkah Cuisine: What We Eat and Why

Our ancestors didn't know from latkes!
Kate Bigam Kaput and Tina Wasserman

On Hanukkah, we traditionally serve holiday dishes cooked in oil to commemorate the miracle of a single vial of oil lasting eight days. But oil as the Hanukkah food of choice was not always so.

One thousand years ago, in the warmer climates of the Mediterranean, Middle East, and North Africa, the Hanukkah specialty dish was a cheese latke (pancake), which commemorated Judith's heroic efforts to save her people during the second century B.C.E. As the story (told in the Apocrypha) goes, the Syrian General Holofernes was sent to Bethulia (due east of Caesarea) by King Nebuchadnesser to annihilate the Jews. To make him thirsty, the beautiful Judith fed him salty cheese, followed by wine. The more he ate, the thirstier he became-and the more wine he drank. When the general passed out, Judith beheaded him, and his troops fled in fear. Thus did Asian Jews come to associate cheese pancakes with the Maccabean victory of their ancestors.

In Eastern Europe, where the climate was considerably colder, Jews did not have easy access to dairy products, so for Hanukkah celebrations, they turned to the foods at hand. Raising geese was a Jewish occupation at the time, and in December, fattened geese provided meat and fat for cooking. Potatoes, too, were readily available and cheap, which is how a crisp, golden potato galette cooked in goose fat became a Hanukkah favorite. (Learn more about this history.)

In Amsterdam in the late 16th century, stewed vegetables became the Hanukkah dish of choice in commemoration of the Dutch military victory over the invading Spanish army. At dinner time on October 3, 1574, the Dutch launched a surprise attack on the Spanish military encampment in Leyden, forcing the Spaniards to flee-and abandon simmering pots of stewed vegetables with meat. Associating the siege of Leyden with the Hasmonean victory, Dutch Jews established the tradition of serving a mashed stew of vegetables with kielbasa on Hanukkah.

Other global Hanukkah cuisine includes:

  • Berenjenas con miel: Spanish Jews eat deep-fried eggplant rounds drizzled with honey. 
  • Buñuelos: This light-as-air fried dough dessert is popular in Mexico, Cuba, and Colombia.
  • Cassola: Baked ricotta cheesecake originated in Italy, now frequently found in the form of cheese pancakes
  • Frituras de malanga: Cuban taro fritters have a mild flavor and are perfect for Hanukkah.
  • Gulam jamun: Deep-fried milk balls are popular in India, typically soaked in rose-flavored syrup. 
  • Keftes de prasa: Leek fritters are popular amongst Sephardic Jews, especially those in Turkey, Greece, and Romania. An alternative is keftes de espinaca, fried spinach patties. 
  • KibbehIn the Middle East, dishes made with bulgur grace the Hanukkah table, like these meat pies.
  • Kibbet yatkeen: Syrian pumpkin patties are traditionally made with bulgur. 
  • Malawach: Yemenite Jews top this flaky, fried flatbread with eggs, zhug (a spicy herbed sauce), and other toppings.
  • Samsa: Sweet, fried dumplings stuffed with walnuts are eaten in Bukhara, or modern-day Uzbekistan.
  • Sfenj: Deep-fried yeast donuts are popular in Morocco, with or without dusting sugar.
  • Jalebi: Crispy fritters in squiggly patterns are popular in India, reminiscent of North American funnel cakes.
  • Rosquitas: This circular fried dough pastry originated in Andalusia (Spain) and is said to represent unity and eternity.
  • Tostones: Twice-fried smashed plantains are popular in Cuba and throughout Latin America, and they're perfect for Hanukkah.
  • Panelle: Fried chickpea fritters originated in Sicily and are sometimes even eaten on sandwiches.
  • Platanos fritos: Fried sweet plantains are popular for Hanukkah in Central America, especially Colombia.
  • ZalabiaYemenite fried dough, topped with powdered sugar or honey, is a popular dessert at Hanukkah and other holidays. 

Looking for more? Search all of our Hanukkah recipes to find your new favorite for this holiday season. And whichever foods you choose to enjoy in celebration of Hanukkah, eat in good health!