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Cooking: Our Ancestors Didn't Know from Latkes
by Tina D. Wasserman

Photo by Rose EichenbaumOn Chanukah we traditionally serve holiday dishes cooked in oil to commemorate the miracle of a single vial of oil lasting eight days.

But oil as the Chanukah food of choice was not always so.

One thousand years ago, in the warmer climates of the Mediterranean, Middle East, and North Africa, the Chanukah specialty dish was a cheese latke (pancake), which commemorated Judith’s heroic efforts to save her people during the second century B.C.E. As the story (told in the Apocrypha) goes, the Syrian General Holofernes was sent to Bethulia (due east of Caesarea) by King Nebuchadnesser to annihilate the Jews. To make him thirsty, the beautiful Judith fed him salty cheese, followed by wine. The more he ate, the thirstier he became—and the more wine he drank. When the general passed out, Judith beheaded him, and his troops fled in fear. Thus did Oriental Jews come to associate cheese pancakes with the Maccabean victory of their ancestors.

In Eastern Europe, where the climate was considerably colder, Jews did not have easy access to dairy products, so for Chanukah celebrations they turned to the foods at hand. Raising geese was a Jewish occupation at the time, and in December fattened geese provided meat and fat for cooking. Potatoes, too, were readily available and cheap—and that is how a crisp, golden potato galette cooked in goose fat became a Chanukah favorite.

In Amsterdam in the late 16th century, stewed vegetables became the Chanukah dish of choice in commemoration of the Dutch military victory over the invading Spanish army. At dinner time on October 3, 1574 the Dutch launched a surprise attack on the Spanish military encampment in Leyden, forcing the Spaniards to flee—and abandon simmering pots of stewed vegetables with meat. Associating the siege of Leyden with the Hasmonean victory, Dutch Jews established the tradition of serving a mashed stew of vegetables with kielbasa on Chanukah.

Whichever foods you choose to enjoy in celebration of Chanukah, eat in good health!


Chanukah Radish Salad

Following in the Maccabean folkloric tradition, radish salad makes for a delicious Chanukah appetizer.

1 pound large fresh red radishes (about 2 dozen)
2 large scallions
2 Tablespoons chicken fat (or extra virgin olive oil)
1-1⁄2 Tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1⁄2 teaspoon kosher salt or sea salt
1⁄2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper (approximately 10 grinds)
1 teaspoon sugar or honey
1 firm brick of Pumpernickel bread or 3 whole wheat pitas
1 head Bibb lettuce (optional)
Extra chicken fat for spreading on bread (optional)
Coarse sea salt for garnish

  1. Thinly slice the radishes.
  2. Trim off the very ends of the scallions and slice them lengthwise in half through the white part. Cut the scallions crosswise into thin slices, using all of the green part as well, leaving you about 2⁄3 cup.
  3. Combine the radishes, scallions, chicken fat or olive oil, vinegar, salt, pepper, and sugar or honey in a medium bowl. Toss gently. Refrigerate for 1⁄2 hour to meld flavors.
  4. Cut thin pumpernickel slices in half on the diagonal or cut 8 wedges from each pita. Lightly toast the breads so they are slightly crisp.
  5. Top a small mound of radish salad on each piece of toast and sprinkle with a pinch of salt as desired. Alternatively, place a few lettuce leaves on a salad plate, and top with some of the radish salad. Place a few triangles of bread on the side, and serve. Yield: 24 appetizers or a salad for 6–8 people.

Tina’s Tidbits

  • Red radishes tend to bleed their color when exposed to acidic foods for long periods of time, so add vinegar into radish salads an hour before serving.
  • When using a moist topping on bread, it is advisable to spread bread first with oil or fat; this barrier will help prevent your bread from getting soggy.


Stuffed Kibbeh

In the Middle East, a Jewish woman used to be judged on her prowess in shaping the kibbeh or bulgur wheat crust into long, torpedo-shaped, shelled dumplings, each of which was individually fried. Nowadays, all the hard work of pounding the bulgur with the meat to make the paste and shaping the crust into a thin shell to be stuffed has been alleviated by the more modern technique of layering the cooked filling in between the crust layers and baking the entire kibbeh.


1-1⁄4 cup bulgur (medium or fine grain if you’re not using a food processor)
2 cups water
1 cup coarsely chopped medium onion
1 pound ground beef or lamb
1⁄2 teaspoon salt
10 grindings of black pepper
1 teaspoon cinnamon


2 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 cups finely chopped large, sweet onion (Vidalia or Bermuda)
1⁄4 cup pine nuts
1⁄2 pound ground beef or lamb
1⁄2 teaspoon salt or to taste
12 grindings of black pepper
1⁄4 teaspoon allspice
1⁄2 teaspoon cinnamon
1–2 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil for coating

  1. To make the crust, combine the bulgur and water in a 1-quart glass bowl and microwave on high for 2 minutes. Let the bulgur soak for 10–15 minutes, then drain in a mesh sieve, pressing out most of the liquid. Set aside.
  2. Place the onion in a processor work bowl and pulse the machine on and off until the onion is finely chopped. Add the meat, salt, pepper, and cinnamon. Turn the machine on for 10 seconds to form a paste. Add the drained bulgur and process until a smooth paste is formed. Alternatively, if you don’t have a processor, finely chop the onion and then add the meat and bulgur. Chop with a large chef’s knife until the mixture holds together.
  3. Spread half of the meat mixture 1⁄2-inch thick over the bottom and up the sides of a 10-inch glass pie plate. Set aside.
  4. To make the filling, heat a 10-inch sauté pan on high for 15 seconds. Add the olive oil and heat for another 15 seconds. Reduce the heat to medium high and add the finely chopped onions, sautéing until they’re soft and lightly golden.
  5. Add the pine nuts and sauté until they are lightly golden.
  6. Mix in the meat and the remaining ingredients. Using a fork or the back of a large spoon, break up any clumps of meat into crumbles. Cook for approximately 5 minutes or until the meat loses its pink color (don’t overcook or it will be rubbery and tough).
  7. Pour the cooked mixture into the center of the meat shell.
  8. Wetting your hands with cold water, gently spread the remainder of the crust-meat mixture smoothly over the top so that it completely covers the filling.
  9. Top with 1–2 Tablespoons of olive oil.
  10. With the tip of a sharp knife, lightly score the meat on the diagonal every 11⁄2 inches to create a diamond pattern.
  11. Bake for 30–35 minutes at 400°F until the kibbeh top is golden brown and slightly crisp.
  12. Cut in wedges and serve as a main course, or cut along scored lines and serve little diamonds as an appetizer. Serves 4–6 people.

Tina’s Tidbit

  • Bulgur is wheat that has been steamed, dried, and crushed. Don’t confuse it with untreated medium and fine grain. If you are not using a processor, make sure you use medium- or fine-grain bulgur.


Frittelle Di Riso—Italian Rice Pancakes

According to Jewish-Italian culinary authority Edda Servi Machlin, rice pancakes are traditionally served on Chanukah in Italy because they are fried. I have adapted her recipe so the pancakes are not saturated in oil, and fewer eggs are used. Also, the nuts are roasted first to enhance their flavor and crispness. Served with cinnamon and sugar or honey, these frittelle make a lovely side dish, breakfast, or dessert.

1 cup Arborio rice (or short- or medium-grain rice)
2-1⁄4 cups water
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup dark raisins
1⁄2 cup slivered almonds or pine nuts
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
4 large eggs or 2 whole eggs and 3 egg whites
3–5 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1⁄4 cup sugar mixed with 1 teaspoon cinnamon (optional) or honey (optional)

  • Place the rice, water, and salt in a 2-quart saucepan and bring to a boil. Cover the pan and lower the heat, simmering for 20–25 minutes until the water is absorbed.
  • Toast the nuts on a cookie sheet in a 350°F oven for 5 minutes or until lightly golden.
  • Add the raisins, nuts, and lemon zest to the rice. Stir well to combine. Let sit for 20 minutes to cool.
  • Lightly beat the eggs in a bowl. Add them to the rice mixture.
  • Heat a large, nonstick frying pan over high heat for 20 seconds. Add 3 Tablespoons of olive oil and heat for 15 seconds. Reduce the heat if the oil begins to smoke.
  • Drop approximately 2 Tablespoons of the mixture into the hot pan (the hot mixture will shape itself). Repeat with more rice mixture, leaving a slight space between each mixture, until the pan is full but not crowded.
  • Cook the pancakes on one side for 3 minutes or until golden. Then flip them over and cook for another 2 minutes or until crisp and golden.
  • Transfer the pancakes to a paper-towel-lined pan.
  • Make the remaining pancakes. If the pan seems dry after you have removed the first batch, add 1 or 2 Tablespoons of oil to the pan before pouring in additional rice mixture.
  • Serve immediately, spooning on cinnamon and sugar or honey if desired. Makes 24 frittelle or pancakes.

Tina’s Tidbits

  • When a recipe requires that a mixture binds together, never use converted or “minute” rice. They don’t contain enough starch to do the job.
  • Never add more oil to a pan while food is in it. The food will just soak up the oil and prevent the oil from coating the pan.

Tina D. Wasserman, a member of Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, teaches at her own cooking school, writes a kosher cooking news­letter on the Internet, and serves as a culinary scholar-in-residence throughout the U.S.



For additional Jewish recipes, including Dutch Hutspot and a Sephardi Semolina Pudding, as well as answers to your cooking questions, email


Union for Reform Judaism.