Borough’s Jewish traders reflect on their food traditions at this time of year
Hanukkah, which this year began on 24th December, is the Jewish ‘festival of lights’. It celebrates an event that occurred in 164BC, after a group of Jewish rebels known as the Maccabees (or Hasmoneans, after the family that led the rebellion) re-took Jerusalem from the Assyrians.
The Assyrian king Antiochus IV had outlawed the Jewish faith, and the temple in Jerusalem had been turned over to other gods, so after regaining control of the city the Maccabees decided that the temple had to be re-consecrated before it could be used for religious worship once more.
As part of the ceremony, the menorah, a candelabrum which burns at the heart of every Jewish temple, needed to be lit using sanctified olive oil as the fuel. However, when they prepared to relight the menorah, the kohain (priests) realised that there was only sufficient oil to last for one day, but they needed seven days to prepare holy oil. They decided to light the first lamp to bring light back into the temple, and to their amazement the oil kept the flame burning for the eight days it took for the new sanctified oil to arrive.
It is this miraculous event that Hanukkah celebrates, and why the holiday lasts for eight days. Each year, to celebrate the miracle, Jewish people place a domestic menorah in the centre of their home and light a candle on each of the eight days of Hanukkah.
“Even though I do not practice the faith religiously, I am Jewish and the family still like to celebrate Jewish holidays,” says Ivan Lester from Nana Fanny’s, which can be found in the Green Market. “While Hanukkah happens around the same time as Christmas, we teach our children that they are not the same celebration, and teach them the reasons behind the Hanukkah holiday.”
When it comes to food, Ivan says the only real guidance is that most of the food cooked during the festival should involve oil, in commemoration of the miracle. “You have latkes, which are fried potatoes pancakes, fried doughnuts—anything really that can be cooked in oil, or ingredients that have a lot of oil in. There is pot roast chicken, salmon. People also cook recipes using beef brisket—the same cut we use for salt beef, but roasted.”
According to Ivan, Hanukkah is a happy holiday. “There’s a game the children always play with a toy called a dreidel, which is like a spinning top with five or six sides,” he explains. “You give kids sweets, chocolates and biscuits, then they spin the dreidel, and how it lands decides whether they have to put a treat into the middle or take something out. The one that’s got all the treats at the end of the day wins—but we encourage the children to share everything after the game, so no one misses out.”
For Gina from Utobeer, the eight days of Hanukkah are a time for personal reflection. “Hanukkah is a festival of light, which makes it a good time to take a look at how your life is progressing,” she explains. “It is a time when I look over the year, see how things have gone and set some goals for the year ahead.”
It is also a time full of memories from Gina’s childhood, when her mother always cooked certain dishes during the eight days of the celebration. “I remember my mother used to make doughnuts,” Gina says. “They have left a really strong impression—maybe because as a child you gravitate towards sweet things. Even today if I walk past Bread Ahead and see doughnuts I immediately think of mum, which is nice.
“There are a couple of dishes I remember her cooking during Hanukkah: one was a lovely beef brisket dish with apricots. She used vegetable oil, beef brisket, chopped onion, crushed garlic, onion powder and dried apricots. It is a lovely dish that really reminds me of this time of year.”
Gina’s mother also cooked challah: a type of bread eaten by Jews on the Sabbath and other religious holidays, including Hanukkah. “My mum made star challah, baked in the shape of the star of David: for me it has a very strong association with Hanukkah celebrations.”