Hanukkah Food Traditions

What to Eat and Enjoy on Hanukkah

Traditional Food For The Jewish Festival Of Hanukkah

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Hanukkah is a Jewish holiday celebrated for eight days and nights. It commemorates the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem following the Jewish victory over the Syrian-Greeks in 165 BCE. Like many Jewish holidays, Hanukkah has accompanying food traditions. Many of these traditions are strongly related to the story of the Hanukkah miracle.

Hanukkah is an eight-day celebration, but it is very rare for families to actually prepare a Hanukkah feast for eight days in a row. Typically, families will have a large holiday meal with friends and extended family on the first or last day of Hanukkah; on the other days they light the menorah, say blessings, and (in some households) give gifts.

Food and Jewish Holidays

Many Jewish holidays are celebrated mainly at home, among friends and family. Food is always a big part of Jewish celebrations, and many of the foods eaten at Hanukkah are also popular at other events (including weekly Shabbat meals). Challah (braided egg bread), for example, is not specific to Hanukkah though it's very likely to be found on the table during the Festival of Lights.

There is no rule about who provides the holiday foods at a Jewish holiday celebration. Often, family members will bring "specialty" dishes to share; for example, an aunt might contribute her special lokshen kugel while a cousin might bring the challah from a well-loved bakery. Some Jewish families prepare dishes from recipes that go back generations; many American Jews brought recipes with them from Russia, Germany, or other countries.

Fried Foods and Dairy as Part of Hanukkah Celebrations

The fondness for fried foods during Hanukkah is in celebration of the miracle of the oil that kept a menorah lit almost 2200 years ago. Fried foods like potato pancakes (latkes in Yiddish and livivot in Hebrew) and doughnuts (sufganiyot in Hebrew) are traditional Hanukkah treats because they are cooked in oil and remind us of the miracle of the holiday.

Dairy foods like cheese and blintzes have a strong symbolic connection to Hanukah as well, related to the story of Judith. According to legend, Judith was a great beauty who saved her village from the Babylonians by charming her way into the enemy camp with a basket of cheese and wine. The enemy general, Holofernes, became drunk and passed out, and Judith beheaded him with his own sword. In this way, Judith saved her people and eventually it became traditional to eat dairy foods in honor of her bravery. A version of the story is often read on the Sabbath during Hanukkah.

Latkes (Potato Pancakes)

Potato latkes, dreidels, menorah
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Latkes, one of the best known of all Hanukkah foods, can be made in many different ways. The basic recipe for this delicious side dish includes just grated potatoes, eggs, and salt. The ingredients are mixed together, formed into circular patties, and fried in oil. More recent innovations including sweet potato, parsnip, and even cheese latkes. Latkes are often eaten with sour cream or apple sauce.

Hanukkah Jelly Doughnuts (Sufganiyot)

Three sufganiyot at Hanukkah
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Sufganiyot are deep-fried jelly doughnuts eaten for dessert. These delicious dessert treats are made with yeast and must be allowed to rise. They're often topped with confectioners sugar. Yeast is allowed in foods year-round except during the Passover holiday when Jews eat unleavened bread in commemoration of their flight from Egypt (as described in the Old Testament).

Bumuelos

Deep frying loukmades
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Bumuelos (also called loukoumades) are treats that originated with the Sephardic (Arabic) Jews. Unlike the leavened sufganiyot, bumuelos are made with unleavened matzo meal as well as eggs, syrup, and both lemon and orange peel. Like sufganiyot, they are sweet desserts, but unlike the jelly doughnuts, they are relatively quick and easy to make.

Blintzes

Plate of blintzes
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Blintzes, a favorite Hanukkah treat, are popular year-round. Typically, blintzes are made of crepe-style pancakes wrapped around sweet ricotta cheese and baked. These days, however, blintzes are stuffed with a wide range of cheeses; cream cheese is often substituted for ricotta. They are topped with sour cream or applesauce and are often eaten as a side dish.

Brisket

Cutting brisket
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Brisket is a fairly inexpensive cut of beef which was popular with the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe. Today, it is a classic Jewish dish for Shabbat and other holy days. Brisket can be large enough to feed a crowd and tasty enough to please everyone. It's cooked in liquid (usually wine or broth) for hours, and, if properly cooked, is a delicious part of many traditional Jewish meals. While kosher law is not followed in every Jewish household, those who do follow kosher law do not mix meat with dairy.

Kugel

Noodle Kugel (lokshen)
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Kugel is a traditional Ashkenazi dish that is essentially a side dish casserole. Generally served with the main part of the meal, kugel can be made with noodles (lokshen) or with potatoes (simply potato kugel).

Lokshen kugel is usually sweet (though it is not usually a dessert) and may include ingredients such as butter, cream cheese, brown sugar, and cinnamon. Eggs and noodles are both essential. Potato kugel, by contrast, is a savory dish—and is considerably less popular than lokshen kugel. In addition to potatoes, it also includes onions, eggs, oil, and chicken fat.

Challah Bread

Challah bread
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Challah is a traditional Jewish egg bread that is often served at Shabbat and is popular year-round. It can be braided (as is traditional for Shabbat) or served as a simple round bread. Either way, it is slightly sweet with a dark crust and soft interior. Few families bake their own challah, but it is always available at Jewish bakeries and, today, in many general grocery stores.

Tzimmes

Tzimmes
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Classic tzimmes is an Ashkenazi stew made from root vegetables, raisins, and, often orange juice. In the United States, the stew is often quite sweet. There are, however, a number of variations on the classic that may be more interesting to contemporary Hanukkah guests. For example, some recipes call for dried apricots, apples, plums, and pears while others, which are more savory, include parsnips, garbanzos, and turnips. Tzimmes is served a vegetable side dish.

Rugelach

Rugelah
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Rugelach is basically a filled cookie served at the end of many Jewish meals. It's made of flaky dough, filled with cinnamon, chocolate, or jam, rolled up, baked, and topped with sugar. Like many of the dishes described, it's as popular during Passover as it is during Hanukah.

Matzo Ball Soup

Bowl containing matzoh ball soup
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Matzo, the unleavened cracker-like bread, is traditionally served at Passover as a reminder of the story of Exodus. In that Biblical story, the Jews had no time to wait for bread to rise as they prepared to escape from Egypt into the desert—so they quickly made unleavened bread. Over time, matzo and matzo-based foods have become traditional foods at any major holiday meal.

Matzo is often crumbled into meal that is used to make a variety of kosher foods, including matzo balls. Matzo balls are made from a mixture of matzo meal, eggs, oil, and salt, and cooked in chicken stock which may be enhanced with carrots, celery, and spices. The soup is often served as a first course, along with gefilte fish.

The balls of bread floating in chicken soup represent the unleavened bread that is a crucial part of Passover. Not a favorite of everyone, but still a traditional dish at Hannukah.

Gefilte Fish

Plate of gefilte fish with horse radish
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Gefilte fish is a traditional Ashkenazi dish served during Shabbat and other holidays. While it is often sold in jelled fish broth, the broth is not a critical part of the dish. Gefilte fish is a combination of white fish, pike, carp, matzo meal, and onions ground together and formed into balls or oblongs and then poached or baked. Gefilte fish is often served as an appetizer along with horseradish.