A Sephardic Chanukah
“My father lit an extra candle on Chanukah,” the cookbook author Poopa Dweck told me recently.
The Jews who came to Aleppo, a city in northern Syria, from Spain after the 1492 edict of expulsion took on the custom to commemorate the additional miracle of having arrived safely and having been tolerantly received in their adopted homeland. Ms. Dweck’s new cookbook, “Aromas of Aleppo,” (Ecco, 388 pages, $49.95), tells the history of the Syrian Jews of Aleppo through photographs, personal stories, and of course, recipes – including those for Chanukah, the eight-day festival, which begins at sundown on December 4.
The Sephardim, or Jewish-Spanish emigres, weren’t the first Jews to settle in Aleppo, but their customs and cuisine melded with those around them, resulting in a distinctive cuisine with a Syrian flavor, with additional influences from Spain, Persia, and India. They adopted and influenced the cuisine of the Arabs, preparing traditional Middle Eastern dishes, but in accordance with their kosher diet.
Though virtually all of the Jews have now left Aleppo, Ms. Dweck, her family, and friends keep their culinary traditions alive in the Aleppian Jewish community of Deal, N.J. For Chanukah, they serve traditional foods that are fried in oil to commemorate the miracle of the oil that lasted eight days when it was expected to last just one.
The typical Aleppian Chanukah includes ejjeh batata, or potato fritters that are similar to potato latkes but are served inside a pocket of Syrian flatbread (pita) with slices of tomato, cucumber, pickled cabbage, and cauliflower. There are other flavors of fritters, such as zucchini and leek – and those are often flavored with allspice, cinnamon, or Aleppo pepper (the fruity, yet spicy, smoky red pepper that has made Aleppo famous with foodies).
Ataiyef, or stuffed Syrian pancakes, is an Arabic dish “that became ours,” Ms. Dweck said. Filled with ricotta cheese and folded into half-moons, the pancakes (which can be made from scratch or from a mix) are deep-fried and soaked in shira, a thick, fragrant Aleppian dessert syrup made from sugar, lemon, and rose or orange blossom water. They’re finished by dipping one corner in chopped pistachios. Another fried Chanukah dessert is zalabieh, fried pastry balls soaked in sugar syrup glaze. They are “identical to the Indian sweet known as jalebi” according to Ms. Dweck.
All of the above can be served as part of a dairy meal, but Ms. Dweck also offered some suggestions for a meat meal. “You could serve the potato fritters with meat, and one of the nights you could also have kibbeh bil Sanieh, baked bulgur meat pie.” This could be served with a side of fawleh, braised string beans with tomato paste, allspice, and garlic.
“But I would make something fried every night,” Ms. Dweck said of the upcoming Jewish festival.
For those who are bored with the same old potato pancakes and brisket, the Sephardic pantry offers an exciting change of pace from the standard Ashkenazi, or Eastern European, Chanukah fare.
During Chanukah, the newly opened restaurant, Toloache (251 W. 50th St., between Broadway and Eighth Avenue, 212-581-1818), has adapted some Chanukah classics. Its executive chef and owner Julian Medina, who was born in Mexico, reinterprets festival dishes with Mexican ingredients (jalapeno, chipotle, and agave nectar) and Sephardic influences (honey and pomegranate). As appetizers, he’ll be offering a trio of fried delights on one plate: a potato-jalapeno latke with horseradish cream; a zucchini latke with tomatillo-apple salsa, and Mexican ricotta fritters with chipotle and agave nectar glaze ($10), as well as beer-braised brisket tacos with tomatillo salsa, avocado, and horseradish crema ($9). Pollo con Manzanas, honey and chipotle-glazed roasted chicken with caramelized apples, quince puree, and pomegranate chile de arbol salsa ($22), is definitely not your grandmother’s roast chicken. And for dessert, Mr. Medina introduces a new tradition: Mexican Sufganiyot, fried donuts filled with a Latin treat – dulce de leche, creamy, rich goat’s milk caramel ($8).
Toloache Chef Julian Medina’s Pollo con Manzanas
5 tbsp. unsalted butter (kosher diners can use dairy-free substitute)
1/4 cup + 1 tbsp. honey
1 tbsp. adobo sauce (the sauce that chipotles are canned in)
Zest of one lime
3 1/2 lbs. chicken (preferably organic)
2 quinces, peeled, seeded, and cut into a 1/2-inch dice
1 tbsp. brown sugar
2 Granny Smith apples, peeled, seeded, and cut into a 1/2-inch dice
1/4 cup pomegranate juice
2 tbsp. pomegranate molasses
1 tbsp. rice wine vinegar
1 tsp. hot sauce (such as Sriracha, sambal, or olek)
Seeds of 1 pomegranate
1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Allow 3 tablespoons butter to reach room temperature and soften in a bowl, then mix in the honey, adobo sauce, and lime zest.
2. Pat the chicken dry, salt it liberally, and spread the compound butter under its skin. Place the chicken in the oven and roast for 1 1/2 hours, or until the temperature of the thickest part of the thigh reaches 170 degrees.
3. While the chicken is cooking, in a large skillet over a low flame melt 2 tablespoons butter, then saute the quince and brown sugar. After five minutes, add the apples, and cook the fruit mixture until caramelized and tender (about 30 minutes; add water to the fruit mixture to prevent it from drying out if needed). Let cool to room temperature, then puree the fruit mixture in a food processor until smooth. Once the chicken is done, return the fruit mixture to a saucepan and re-heat over a low-flame for five minutes.
4. In a saucepan, whisk together pomegranate juice, pomegranate molasses, 1 tablespoon of honey, rice wine vinegar, and hot sauce. Bring to a boil, and simmer for about two minutes. Cover and keep warm.
5. Serve the chicken on a platter with the puree, drizzle the sauce on top of both, and sprinkle with pomegranate seeds.