Mention the Jewish holiday 'Hanukkah' and the typical response is "that's the one close to Christmas, right?". Right.
But although Christmas is a huge event for Christians and in much of secular society, Hanukkah is more of a blip in an action-packed Jewish calendar.
For my family, Hanukkah doesn't rate nearly as well as Pesach (aka, Passover), while other major holidays include Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement, held in October) and Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year, held in September). But what Hanukkah has that these other holidays don't have is an abundance of fried foods.
I often refer to Hanukkah as 'doughnut time' because one, I love doughnuts, and two, I am a self-professed Lazy Jew. But before we can focus on the doughnuts, it's important to understand what Hanukkah is about.
One of the most important symbols of Hanukkah is the menorah.
Hanukkah is an eight-day holiday, which I believe is far too long to be celebrating any one thing. It's held on the 25th day of Kislev, which is the third month of the year on the Hebrew calendar.
Hanukkah means 'festival of lights', which sounds lovely but is, in fact, a remembrance of (yet) another period of turmoil for Jewish people. In about 200 BC, Jewish people were forced by Greek-Syrian Antiochus IV Epiphanes to abandon their faith and instead worship Greek gods. A rebellion forced the king and his soldiers out of Jerusalem and the Second Temple was cleansed and rededicated.
One night, I had an epiphany thinking about crinkle cookies, and the beautiful cracks that form when they bake from being pre-rolled in icing sugar. I figured, if I spray the cookies with edible gold spray paint, they’ll kind of look like a crumpled up foil wrapper from chocolate Chanukah gelt coins. The next morning and a few hours and a messy kitchen later, I hit the jackpot: a chewy, intensely flavoured chocolate cookie reminiscent of brownies, but oh so much prettier! To round out my Hanukkah cookie theme, I topped them with chocolate gelt coins made from real Belgian dark chocolate.
To celebrate this rededication, Hanukkah was born and this year it's held between December 22 and 30.
I've never celebrated Hanukkah for the whole eight days - in the wise words of Kimberly "Sweet Brown" Wilkins - "ain't nobody got time for that".
My Hanukkah celebrations are more of a "greatest hits" approach, which jams in all the elements I prefer - all killer, no filler. Those elements are food, singing and games, gelt and religious rituals.
I take the food part very seriously. Oil is the key theme for this holiday, as a crucial part of the Hanukkah story is the miracle of how one day's worth of oil for lighting candles on the nine-forked menorah, lasted for eight days. Thus, the eight days of Hanukkah, although that has not been tested in either a court of law or Judge Judy.
For me, Hanukkah is about making and sharing food that symbolises the Jewish people surviving (yet) another attempted elimination.
I often invite non-Jewish friends to Hanukkah dinner, because more is merrier. I also love introducing Jewish food to gentiles, because it's too good not to share and I enjoy making them try to pronounce the names of the dishes in just one go.
With fresh bounty in hand from the farmers’ market, this recipe practically wrote itself. I combined kohlrabi (which is white inside, by the way), carrots and beetroot with some beetroot leaves to create beautiful, jewel-toned latkes that are even tastier than they are colourful. My husband brought a pan of the crispy-fried latkes to a business meeting and they were gone in seconds. He came home with rave reviews and a generous offer to take me back to the farmers’ market!
It’s interesting to see the difference in style between what I call a latke (a very crispy potato cake) and the somewhat softer latkes that some of my friends with Polish origins love. Mine belong to the Litvak (Lithuanian-Jewish) culinary tradition, which dominated in South Africa where my mother’s family lived, having migrated from Eastern Europe in the late 1880s.
My three-course-plus dinner always starts with latkes - shallow-fried potato pancakes - which are among the most popular dishes during Hanukkah. The potato has to be finely shredded and patted dry to ensure they fry up crispy. The past few years I've served mine with smashed edamame, tzatziki dip and smoked salmon.
Every year I switch up the main. This year I plan to roast a chicken that's marinated in lemon, garlic, rosemary and truffle oil. And because there is no such thing as too many latkes, I take leftover shredded potatoes and line mini-muffin tins with them to make a potato-cup, which I fill with roasted carrots.
There's always a big serving of challah bread, which is a sweet, egg-based bread that's braided. I prefer it just on its own but it can be served with spreads like honey, jam or chocolate and hazelnut.
One of the most important symbols of Hanukkah is the menorah. Each night, one extra candle is lit until all candles are blazing. It also doubles as a fabulous self-defence weapon.
I like to serve dessert while the candle is being lit, and I always serve two desserts - the aforementioned doughnuts, stuffed with hot raspberry jam and cinnamon, and apple cake that's drizzled in honey.
Other than fried foods, there's lots of flexibility in what foods can be served; preferences will depend on what denomination of Judaism is being followed, what country you're in, or simply what you personally prefer.
Challah is a Jewish bread that's soft and rich on the inside, with a glossy, dark crust. While it's traditionally served for ceremonial occasions, the popularity of this decorative loaf means it appears far more often than just at formal celebrations. Make it, and you'll understand why!
Personally, no Jewish holiday - or any week, goes by without slurping up some matzo-ball soup. I love a salty, faux-chicken broth with plenty of broccoli added. Even in summer, it's a light and refreshing meal, and matzo balls are one of the most moreish foods I've ever had.
Dinner is only finished after the menorah has been lit and I make my friends recite a prayer in Yiddish, which they always make a mess of, but that's the fun of it.
The Festival of Light is always brighter when humour, friends and doughnuts are added to the table.
A popular dessert served for Rosh Hashanah, this cake is sweetened with honey and flavoured with spices, orange zest and coffee. The honey symbolises hopes for a sweet New Year and also alludes to the Promised Land that flows “with milk and honey”. Honey is so highly regarded in Jewish culture that it is a permissible food according to Jewish dietary laws, even though bees are considered a non-kosher species. While it is traditionally served plain, we’ve finished our cake with an orange icing topped with pecans.
These Jewish favourites, of Eastern European origin, are filled with sweet apricot jam and walnuts.