• Noe Harsel with her sons Dylan and Levi celebrate Hannukah in a cross-cultural fashion: Embracing both their Japanese and Jewish heritages. (Supplied)Source: Supplied
How this Japanese-Jewish Australian brings her heritages together through food.
By
Cat Woods

25 Nov 2021 - 11:43 PM  UPDATED 26 Nov 2021 - 11:46 AM

Noe Harsel can lay claim to several artistic and cultural pursuits, including a position with the Jewish Museum of Australia, as the chair of Writers Victoria and as the creator of her very own 'Japanukkah'. 

That last achievement is not widely known. In fact, it's a family affair, but such a joyful one that she's keen to reveal what Japanukkah is and how it became an annual ritual in her household.

"I'm half Japanese, so I've always been culturally diverse," Harsel says. "Growing up, having both identities has always been really interesting and I never had to think about it until coming to Australia. As I was starting to become a teenager, there was that question of 'who are you?' and trying to work out where you belong."

Harsel's American Jewish father and Japanese mother raised Harsel and her siblings in Seattle, Washington. When she was 12, the family moved to Melbourne. Neither of her parents are religious, nor is Harsel, but they observe the cultural rituals of the Jewish faith and always have.

"Hanukkah is the Festival of Light so it celebrates the discovery of oil that shouldn't have lasted and it lasted a whole eight days. It's about the Maccabean revolt against the Seleucid Empire way back", she explains. "It became known as the miracle of miracles, yadda yadda yadda, this whole big thing...but for me growing up, and for a lot of American Jews, it's like a Jewish Christmas."

However, her childhood also featured her mother's Japanese culture, especially Japanese food. Her mother regularly used ginger, soy sauce and sesame oil to add flavour and depth to dinners. "If we were to make hamburgers, my mother would throw soy sauce into the mix. I would grow up smelling garlic and sesame oil."

Chicken schnitzel with seaweed and Japanese mayonnaise.
Chicken schnitzel with seaweed and Japanese mayonnaise.

In fact, there was no distinction between her Jewish and her Japanese identity until she became a teenager and realised not everyone lived as she did.

What Harsel considered unique as a teenager became fundamental to Harsel's identity as an adult. "As I became a little more conscious of how I wanted to identify myself, I asked: 'What does it mean to be a biracial, mixed-race Jewish woman? How do I claim my Jewish identity?'

"I went through all these questions and I came out the other side thinking to myself I don't want to lose my Japanese identity because it's part of me and especially as I started having children, it would have been easy to let that go and do what everyone else does."

Food, specifically celebratory dishes, became the solution to how she'd celebrate both her Japanese and Jewish identities.

"All Jewish holidays are basically centred around food," she laughs. "There's a great Woody Allen quote: 'They came, they tried to kill us and then we ate'.

"All Jewish holidays are basically centred around food."

So, she began to experiment with the food people usually eat over Hanukkah. "Because Hanukkah is around Christmas, and in all truth, is not one of those holidays that is so sacrosanct that I can't play around with it."

Since Hanukkah celebrates the miraculous oil that kept the menorah (an ancient lamp) lit for eight days, traditionally fried foods are eaten, so she reimagined latkes, or potato fritters, which are traditionally eaten during Hanukkah.

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"I am not sure where I first learnt [to make latkes]. I feel like I have a memory of it from my bubbe [my father's mother], but I would have been 3 years old. So it must have been from watching my mother, and then from various friends and their mothers," says Harsel.

She partners them with wasabi mayonnaise. "Mayo pretty much goes with anything, and I do love a potato, so for me, it is a winner combination. The wasabi does add a kick, so you do have to be prepared and it is not for everyone. But, to me, the slight tang and little burn of the wasabi, with the creaminess of the mayo, blends so well with the salty crispness of the latkes," she explains. 

Noe Harsel's unique Japanese-inspired latkes.
Noe Harsel's unique Japanese-inspired latkes.

Her latke invention became a segue to bring Japanese fried foods into her family's Hanukkah feast. "Think of tempura, gyoza, karaage chicken. Conversely, I can bring some of those flavours back and forward. I'm a massive fan of this la-yu chilli oil, [which contains sesame oil], and I will put it on everything."

"Mayo pretty much goes with anything, and I do love a potato, so for me, it is a winner combination."

Then, she added Jewish flavours to Japanese dishes. "You can make some okonomiyaki, a Japanese pancake, and put some smoked salmon on top of that, or some horseradish. So, you're doing a food cultural mashup."

Okonomiyaki welcomes smoked salmon and is paired with Japanese potato salad
Okonomiyaki welcomes smoked salmon and is paired with Japanese potato salad in this Hannukah fusion.

This year, she plans a wasabi mayonnaise and a sriracha mayonnaise with karaage chicken ("I do that with a hot apple-sauce puree, which sounds a bit weird but does taste really nice!").

If you're prepared to pair apple puree with karaage chicken, perhaps Harsel's unique approach to doughnuts will also take your fancy.

"What I have tried is doing doughnuts with a wasabi filling, because the doughnuts are also fried. It's an acquired taste, let's say. I probably won't do it this year, but I am thinking about doing some zucchini fries with a wasabi dipping sauce."

Of course. How else would you celebrate Japanukkah?


Latkes

  • 3-4 potatoes 
  • 1 red onion
  • 1 large egg
  • 2 tbsp matzo meal or GF breadcrumbs
  • 1 tsp salt
  • ⅛ tsp pepper
  • 1 cup oil

Topping

  • Wasabi mayo and bonito flakes

Method

  1. Line a baking sheet with a double layer of paper towels. Put a baking sheet onto a wire-cooling rack. Set both aside.
  2. Grate potatoes and onion with a food processor. Grate the potatoes and onion using the shredding setting of a food processor.
  3. Twist and squeeze the potatoes and onion as hard as you can until no more liquid comes out of the potatoes and onion shreds.
  4. Toss the latke ingredients together with your fingers. Add the potatoes, onion, eggs, matzo meal or breadcrumbs, and salt and pepper to the bowl. Mix with your fingers. Set batter aside for 10 minutes.
  5. Place the oil in a large skillet. Heat over medium-high until a piece of the latke mixture sizzles immediately.
  6. Scoop ¼ cup of the mixture onto a fish or flat spatula. Flatten with your fingers to make a 10 cm patty.
  7. Slide the latke into the hot oil, using a fork to nudge the latke into the pan. Repeat until the pan is full but the latkes aren't crowded. Cook until deeply golden-brown, 4 to 5 minutes per side. Adjust the heat if necessary.
  8. Drain the latkes. Transfer the latkes to a paper towel-lined baking sheet to drain for 2 minutes. Transfer to the baking sheet-lined wire-cooling rack. 

Wasabi mayo

  • Combine ½ tbsp wasabi paste with a cup of mayonnaise.
  • Vary the portions until you're satisfied with the heat and taste. 

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