A festival of (de)lights

Aventura’s Danny Mizrachi melds Iraqi-Israeli flavors to create a special Hanukkah table.

Every year at Hanukkah, Danny Mizrachi’s friends crowd into the living room and kitchen of his Bal Harbour apartment to celebrate the Festival of Lights.

Most arrive with their own chanukiahs, the nine-branched candelabra or menorah. It’s lit to commemorate the miracle that occurred when oil that should have burned one day lasted eight. Once everyone’s candles are flickering and the prayers said, the guests celebrate with an elaborate dinner prepared in their host’s Iraqi-Israeli tradition.

Rather than the brisket, apple sauce and potato latkes traditionally eaten by Ashkenazy (or Eastern European) Jews, who predominate in the United States, Mizrachi serves the Sephardic dishes his mother prepared for him and his 10 siblings in Beit Shean, the small town in Israel near the Jordanian border where he grew up.

Sephardic Jews are descendents of those who were expelled centuries ago from their ancient homeland Sepharad, the Hebrew name for Spain.

As with Jews who immigrated to Eastern Europe, Sephardic Jews adapted their cooking to the traditions and availability of food in their host nations while adhering to the rules for keeping kosher. The Sephardic menu tends to reflect the greater availability of spices and vegetables in the warmer countries in which these people settled.

For Mizrachi’s guests, that translates into flavorful, often spicy, dishes that feature eggplant, chick peas and fresh salads popular in Israel and in his parents’ native Iraq. He does not keep kosher but prepares a meat-only menu for his friends who do.

“My parents met and were married in Iraq, but it became dangerous for Jews there and they moved to Israel three years after it became a state, in 1951,” says the 47-year-old owner of Danny Mizrachi Day Spa & Salon in Aventura. “They’re very, very traditional people. My siblings and I took what our mother made in her kitchen and changed it to become more gourmet.”

Mizrachi notes that while Hanukkah traditions are similar in Israel and the United States, Israelis give their children cash, or Hanukkah gelt, on one night rather than several small gifts over the course of the holiday, as is often done here. Since Israel is primarily Jewish, he explains, parents aren’t compelled to keep children from feeling left out because their friends receive presents for Christmas.

“The feeling of the holiday is different in Israel. Everything shuts down and the neighborhood is filled with the odor of frying food. You know a holiday is around the corner. Every night, you go to a different house or invite people to yours to light candles, and everyone puts their chanukiah near the window so you can see it from outside.”

Mizrachi’s Hanukkah menu features several deep-fried items to commemorate the oil that burned for eight days when the sacred temple in Jerusalem was recaptured by the Maccabees. These include sambusak, a fried pastry filled with chick peas, onions and spices. Mizrachi also makes two types of koobe, the term for a variety of small patties or dumplings that can be fried or baked. A simple Israeli salad doused with lemon juice provides a fresh counterpoint to the fried items.

On special occasions such as Hanukkah and Mizrachi’s twice-yearly visits to Israel, his mother makes an Iraqi dish called ungriyi. This is a layered onion, eggplant, tomato and beef stew with a subtle sweet and tangy bite derived from sugar and citric acid.
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While most Israelis eat sufganiyot, or jelly doughnuts, on Hanukkah, Mizrachi’s menu includes an Iraqi version called “Cham cham,” or “hot hot.” Also known as buñuelos and burmuelos, these are deep-fried sweet fritters drizzled with warm sugar or honey syrup. Just as children liken the shapes of clouds to animate objects, Mizrachi and his siblings compared the shapes of these fritters to animals.

Given his home country’s demographics, it’s no coincidence that Mizrachi’s Hanukkah menu includes dishes from a broad range of cultures. Israelis, he says, are exposed to foods from around the world.

“In Israel, everyone immigrated from somewhere else and we have a lot of mixed marriages,” Mizrachi says. “So everybody basically makes everything from Moroccan fish and cous cous to East European matzo ball soup.”
(Tags: Hanukah, Food, Sephardic Jews)


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