November 2018 Issue
Jewish Holiday Food Traditions
By Judith C. Thalheimer, RD, LDN
Vol. 20, No. 11, P. 42
Hanukkah and other Jewish holidays reflect a rich religious and cultural history, providing comforting traditions and much room to explore new dishes.
Hanukkah is coming, and with it, joyful indulgence and the warm satisfaction that comes from comfort foods. Understanding the background of Jewish clients and patients can help nutrition professionals offer the most impactful dietary advice, and being aware of the rich history of Jewish culture provides an opportunity for culinary adventure that can add new (sometimes more healthful) holiday traditions to the menu.
The Festival of Lights
On the solar calendar, Hanukkah falls in November or December. This proximity to Christmas has influenced this minor holiday's metamorphosis into a major celebration in America, complete with gift giving, food-filled celebrations, and rolled cookies with Hanukkah-themed shapes. Most of the traditional foods at Hanukkah tables around the world are either fried in oil, made of cheese, or both. To understand why, one must be familiar with the following two ancient stories:
• Oil. King Antiochus IV, who came to power in 175 BC, outlawed Jewish religious rites and traditions and ordered everyone to worship Zeus. Jewish rebels (named the Maccabees for the Hebrew word for "hammer") revolted and were victorious. But, the story goes, when they set out to rededicate the Temple in Jerusalem by lighting the flame that must always burn on the altar, they had only one day's worth of oil. Miraculously, that oil lasted eight days and nights.1 Jews around the world light candles for eight nights and fry foods (such as potato latkes and donuts) in oil to remember this miracle and the bravery and sacrifice of those fighting for religious freedom.
• Cheese. The tradition of eating cheese at Hanukkah (which is more popular in other parts of the world than in the United States) comes from the Book of Judith.1,2 Judith was a Jewish widow whose bravery saved her town from being overrun by Assyrian troops bent on outlawing all religions other than the worship of their king, Nebuchadnezzar. She brought the Assyrian commander, Holofernes, salty cheese that made him thirsty and wine to quench his thirst. When Holofernes became drunk, Judith cut off his head with his own sword.2 This story has long been associated with Hanukkah and, in honor of Judith, dairy foods are Hanukkah favorites in many cultures.1
World of Traditions
"Our food preferences are shaped by the foods that are around us, in our environment, and in our homes," says Kristen F. Gradney, MHA, RDN, LDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. So Jews of Eastern or Central European background (known as Ashkenazi Jews), have different traditions than those from Spain and other Mediterranean countries (Sephardic Jews). The majority of Jews in the United States have an Ashkenazi background, and so the holiday meals handed down in their families are likely to include recipes brought over from places including Russia, Poland, and Germany.3 These foods, from mostly poor communities in land-locked countries with colder climates, often are heavy in cheaper cuts of meat, grains, and root vegetables. Borscht (beet soup), braised beef brisket, kasha (buckwheat groats), bagels, gefilte fish, pickles, and tzimmes (a stew typically made of roasted root vegetables and dried fruit) are Ashkenazi foods.3 Sephardic Jews left Spain and Portugal and spread across the Mediterranean to places such as Turkey, Greece, and North African and West Asian countries. Sephardic foods are flavored by the bounty of the warm Mediterranean, and often feature fish, vegetables, fresh fruits, cheeses, legumes, and herbs.3 Hanukkah favorites of Sephardic and Israeli Jews include cheese pancakes, sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts), and buñuelos (fried dough puffs drizzled with honey, similar to Christmas bimuelos).4
"Regardless of origin, all traditional Jewish foods follow the dietary laws of kashrut," says Jacqueline Lewis, FRCS (Glasg), FRCS (Plast), a British plastic and breast surgeon, who, along with Judi Rose, daughter of famed Jewish chef and food writer Evelyn Rose, is working on a soon-to-be-published book of healthful Jewish-inspired recipes called Lokshen Horror: The Noshers' Guide to Healthy Jewish Cooking. "Among other rules, eating certain animals, primarily pigs and shellfish, is forbidden; meat must be ritually and humanely slaughtered; and dairy and meat aren't to be eaten at the same meal." Fish and plant foods are "neutral" (parve) and can be eaten with either meat or dairy. A 2013 Pew Research Center study found that only approximately 22% of American Jews keep kosher, so even Jewish families may not realize that all of the recipes handed down from Bubbe (grandmom) were designed to follow these rules.5 So-called Jewish apple cake, for example, is dairy-free (it uses oil instead of butter), so it can be eaten after any meal, whereas a dairy dessert wouldn't be eaten after a meal containing meat in kosher households.
Happy, Healthful Holidays
Around the world, Hanukkah traditions emphasize fried foods, refined grains, and sweets. At American tables, one is most likely to see potato latkes (fried pancakes made from grated potato and onion), topped with sour cream, applesauce, or both. The meal may include a beef brisket, slow cooked in a sweet or savory sauce until it's tender enough to cut with a fork, or perhaps kugel (a rich noodle pudding sometimes called a lokshen kugel), typically made with cottage cheese and sour cream. In Israel, sufganiyot rule the Hanukkah season. These deep-fried dough balls are filled with strawberry jelly and dusted with powdered sugar.
Many of these traditional foods aren't the most healthful choices. "Refined grains, sweets, and animal fats are associated with increased triglycerides, total cholesterol, and LDL cholesterol levels," Gradney says. "Enjoying small amounts of these foods may not be too bad, but indulging in them throughout the holidays can have negative health effects." For people with diabetes, the negative effects of too many sufganiyot, Hanukkah cookies, and buñuelos could be more immediate. "Refined grains and sweets can cause spikes in blood sugar for those who have diabetes," Gradney says.
Some people may want to make lighter versions of traditional favorites. "You could try baked latkes, lighten cheese kugel with reduced-fat cheese and sour cream, cut sugar with stevia, or use fruits instead of sugars to sweeten a dish, but people should eat foods that feel traditional and right to them, in moderation," Lewis says.
Gradney tells people that making healthful changes to family traditions will help them stay alive to celebrate these traditions longer, and will teach their children to celebrate in more healthful ways. "Since much traditional Hanukkah cooking centers around oil, how about using oil in another way, such as making a dressing for a salad," Gradney says.
Families looking to expand on traditions or start their own may want to look to the Mediterranean flavor of Sephardic cooking. Latkes can be made from other vegetables, such as leeks or zucchini, or even with protein-rich ricotta cheese, harkening back to the way they were made before potatoes were introduced to Europe. Fried Hanukkah foods can be balanced on the plate with vegetable dishes made festive with bright red pomegranate seeds (arils), colorful dried fruits, and nuts. "I love Sephardic foods, even though they're not a part of my personal background," Lewis says. "And Sephardic food has really good health credentials, with a profusion of beans and lentils, vegetables, fruits, and fish. There's also, of course, plenty of pastry and honey in Sephardic cooking, which is less than ideal if taken in great quantities."
An awareness of traditional foods and their meanings is important in dietetics practice. "It's essential that nutrition professionals be aware of people's regional, cultural, and religious backgrounds," Gradney says. "We have to understand that people's traditional foods are important to them. Food is about much more than just fuel, or even taste. Food is often about feeling. If we recognize that, and work with people on skills like moderation and balancing the less-healthful choices on their plates with healthful foods from nature, we may find our counseling is more successful."
— Judith C. Thalheimer, RD, LDN, is a nutrition educator and managing editor of the Tufts Health & Nutrition Letter.
1. Waxman OB. The surprising origins of 5 Hanukkah traditions. Time website. http://time.com/5054877/history-hanukkah-traditions/. Published December 11, 2017.
2. Recipes for Hanukkah. My Jewish Learning website. https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/hanukkah-foods/
3. Martinelli K. Sephardic Hanukkah foods. SheKnows website. https://www.sheknows.com/food-and-recipes/articles/978717/sephardic-hanukkah-food-recipes. Published December 11, 2012.
4. Alhadeff T. Manna from heaven: bumuelos, a Sephardic Hanukkah treat. University of Washington, Stroum Center for Jewish Studies website. https://jewishstudies.washington.edu/sephardic-studies/manna-from-heaven-bumuelos/. Published December 25, 2016.
5. Heilman U. Pew survey of U.S. Jews: soaring intermarriage, assimilation rates. Jewish Telegraphic Agency website. https://www.jta.org/2013/10/01/news-opinion/united-states/pew-survey-u-s-jewish-intermarriage-rate-rises-to-58-percent. Updated October 1, 2013.