• During Hanukkah, the food presented can be widely different (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
Jewish people come from two distinctive places and that significantly influences the dishes served during Hanukkah.
Alana Schetzer

19 Dec 2019 - 2:00 PM  UPDATED 8 Dec 2020 - 11:29 PM

When it comes to food and Judaism, there are as many rules to follow as there are myths. For Orthodox (also known as Frum) Jewish people, what to eat - and how - is a daily ritual that is intrinsically linked to how they practice their faith. This can mean no pork and shellfish, and keeping a strict Kosher kitchen.

But for others, the relationship with food is far more relaxed.

Not only does the denomination of Judaism play a huge role in the foods that you eat, and even how you prepare them, but the country you or your ancestors hail from is just as big a factor.

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Jewish people can be grouped into two geographical categories, broadly - Ashkenazic (Eastern Europe) and Sephardic (Mediterranean and Middle Eastern). And just as these two distinctive parts of the world are separated by thousands of kilometres, they're also separated by cuisines.

While Sephardic Jewish people stayed in the Middle East, Spain, Portugal and Northern Africa, Ashkenazic Jewish people hightailed it to Eastern European countries such as Germany, Poland and Russia. This is where my family originated from, and the foods that were served throughout my childhood were as Eastern European as they can get. 

"A bowl of hot, garlicky borscht and a plate of sour cream-topped latkes makes me very happy."

Much of this cuisine is focused on carbs and can be quite stodgy - think lots of potato, beetroot and other root vegetables, and grains. The first Ashkenazic were poor and could only eat peasant foods, and as they travelled further east from Germany, they picked up other foods, like pickles, rye bread and horseradish. All of these foods remain integral to the Eastern European Jewish diet and those - like me - who descend from there. 

Because of the widely different weather and the foods available - plus their collective wealth - Sephardic Jewish people's diet was radically different. It included expensive spices and was highly influenced by other cultures, so foods like kebabs, pilafs and dolmades were given a Jewish makeover.

Sephardic Jewish cuisine comprises dishes like kebabs.

This means that during Hanukkah, the food served can be widely different. Because up to 75 per cent of the worlds Jewish people are believed to be of Ashkenazic origins, bagels, gefilte fish, kugel and challah bread are most common.

Jewish cookbook author Leah Koenig knows all about just how much of a difference where you live plays in what you eat. Although she lives in Brooklyn, Koenig's family heritage is Russian and Lithuanian, and the dishes she grew up eating were firmly Eastern European in influence.

"A bowl of hot, garlicky borscht and a plate of sour cream-topped latkes makes me very happy," she says.

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Latkes are distinctly Ashkenazic food.

Given her role as a professional food writer, Koenig has been exposed to the Jewish cuisine of Sephardic Jewish people, and she's come to love the "crusty-topped rice pilafs of Iran, the saucy vegetable spreads of North Africa, and the deep-fried artichokes (and deep-fried everything) found in Rome's Jewish community". 

This pilaf will make you swoon.

For her Hanukkah table, Koenig says she'll be serving many of the foods she grew up eating and still enjoys. That includes latkes of every kind - traditional potato, curried sweet potato, and shredded beet - which are served with her mum's traditional apple sauce.

"I've added sufganiyot ([doughnuts] filled with jam), that are popular in Israel, to my Hanukkah repertoire."

While Jewish cuisine does have a distinctive geographical line, what both Ashkenazic and Sephardic food have in common is the many techniques used to make their dishes.

"For example," Koenig explains. "There's a prohibition against active cooking on the Sabbath, which means there are a million different long-simmered stews and casseroles that cook at very low heat. 

"Almost every Jewish cuisine has some form of this low and slow dish. The ingredients vary widely depending on where it's being made, but the soul of the dish remains constant."

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About Jewish food
Jewish cuisine is difficult to define as one entity. As a people who've been uprooted time and again, the Jewish diaspora has meant that there are a multitude of regional food styles: from the hearty fare of Eastern Europe’s Ashkenazi Jews to the more subtle, Mediterranean flavours of their Sephardi brothers and sisters – not forgetting their Mizrahi cousins, who have a preference for the spices of Morocco, the Middle East and India.