Several Hanukkas ago my husband came home with an electric deep fryer large enough to accommodate a 12-pound turkey. I’d heard of suburban folks frying turkeys in their garages, but because we live in a Manhattan apartment I was less than thrilled with the gigantic appliance, which I had no room to store.
That first Hanukka, however, I acquiesced to deep frying a turkey, which turned out to be more delicious than you can imagine. The bird was moist on the inside and crisp on the outside, an achievement that anyone who has roasted a turkey can tell you is no easy feat. Surprisingly the bird didn’t taste greasy.
Better yet, the preparation time was reduced from several hours to 45 minutes.
Since then, fried turkey has become one of our most treasured holiday traditions. Of course on the first night of Hanukka, we fill four skillets with latkes. Nothing is crunchier than grated potatoes browned in spattering oil. But on another night of this eight-day holiday, we invite a crowd and deep fry a turkey. As we light colorful Hanukka candles, our apartment fills with the scent of serious searing. Watching the candles twinkle, our family and friends can’t wait to gobble the turkey.
Deep fried turkey is a fitting way to celebrate Hanukka, the festival of oil, because its preparation requires several gallons of oil. But how did fried foods become entwined with Hanukka’s culinary history?
It started more than 2,100 years ago when the Greek king of Syria, Antiochus, occupied Israel. During his reign, the Jews and their customs faired poorly. When one of his officers arrived in a town outside of Jerusalem, he demanded the Jews take part in a Greek ceremony that entailed bowing to an idol and eating pork, both of which are forbidden by Jewish law.
Outraged by such disrespect, the Maccabee family led a revolt to overthrow the occupiers. After defeating the Greek army, Judah Maccabee and his men began restoring the great Temple in Jerusalem, which lay in ruin.
Candles had not yet been invented, so specially prepared olive oil was used to light the Temple’s menora. Finding only a one-day supply of the oil to keep the menorah burning, the Maccabees were awestruck that it lasted eight days, long enough for a new batch to be made.
This spawned the eight-day celebration of Hanukka and the custom of observing the holiday by frying foods in oil.
During the Maccabees’ time, cheese pancakes were a popular fried food. Latkes weren’t added to the Hanukka repertoire until centuries later. Jews from various countries now fry many kinds of foods, including donuts, fritters, and pancakes.
My husband’s family hailed from the Jewish community of Trieste, Italy, so every Hanukka we also deep fry rice balls. An Italian delicacy, these crunchy balls, held together with ricotta cheese, are a sensational hors d’oeuvres or side dish.
While fooling around in my kitchen, I’ve successfully fried some unexpected foods from Jewish cuisine into a whole new identity. Slices of sour pickles undergo a crusty transformation when they hit hot oil.
Chopped fish, eggs, and matza meal are usually mixed together to form patties that are simmered in broth to produce gefilte fish. But instead of boiling these large oval patties, I roll the batter into small balls and deep fry them. After one taste, you’ll never settle for bland gefilte fish again.
Frightened by the thought of dealing with raw fish? Forget the stories about your bubbe who tackled a live karp in her bathtub every time she cooked gefilte fish. Instead, ask your fishmonger to grind the haddock, whitefish, or pike you order. From there, handling the fish batter is as easy as forming hamburger patties.
On the theory that you can fry anything, I suggest widening your Hanukka repertoire. Here are some ideas:
- Submerge any kind of pitted black or green olives (but not bottled or canned) into hot oil, where they will develop a delicious pucker within a minute or two.
- If pressed for time, slide thinly sliced potatoes or florets of broccoli and cauliflower into a pot of hot oil until they turn delightfully brown. After placing them on paper towels and sprinkling with kosher salt, you’ll savor every crisp mouthful.
- Canned chickpeas can be fried into a sensational hors d’oeuvre or snack. Dry them on paper towels. Put a mixture of curry powder, cumin, flour, paprika, and a dash of cayenne pepper into a plastic storage bag. Place the chickpeas into the bag in batches, seal, and shake them until they’re coated. Deep fry them in oil, drain on paper towels, sprinkle with kosher salt, and serve them immediately.
In spite of these other delicacies, I have to admit that I wait all year for Hanukka because of the crackling texture of potato pancakes. But I find I can eat latkes for only so many days in a row before seeking other foods to fry.