Hanukkah in transition: A global feast

11-24-10 Caterer Wendy Pashman and Executive Chef Shawn Doolin and a few dishes that put a new spin on Hanukkah – she’ll do a Moroccan tagine and sweet potato pancakes with mango chutney – dishes perfect for Hanukkah or anytime…….Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Slow-roasted brisket. Potato latkes crisped in oil. Noodle kugel spiked with raisins. Cheeses to commemorate the story of Judith. The braised meats, dairy and fried foods equated with Hanukkah are an age-old tradition, especially in Chicago, where Russian and Eastern European foods dominate the holiday menu.

This year, perhaps it’s time for a change.

“Most of the Chicago Jewish people are Ashkenazi, meaning they have ancestry from Russia, the Ukraine, Poland, Germany and other parts of Europe,” says Wendy Pashman, caterer and owner of Entertaining Company. “That’s why we always see brisket and potato pancakes around the holidays.

“But you can very much be in the Hanukkah tradition by eating foods from Syria, Morocco, Turkey and other parts of the world.”

With Baby Boomers growing older and their children now leading the holiday feasts, a transition seems to be in the works — from the old guard that demanded tradition to a new one welcoming twists on the classics and more global influences.

“As a caterer, I’m seeing more people call us for out-of-the-box ideas when it comes to Hanukkah menus,” Pashman says. “People seem to be looking for something new.”

That’s especially the case when people from different backgrounds and heritages, both Jewish and non-Jewish, get together.

Sephardic Jewish cuisine is one alternative focus. A minority in Chicago compared to Ashkenazis, Sephardic Jews descend from Spain and Portugal (Sephardic means Spain in Hebrew), where they fled during the Diaspora after the Romans destroyed their temple in Israel. Banished by Spain in 1492, they then fled to the Middle East and North Africa.

“If you’re Sephardic, instead of brisket, you might make a Moroccan lamb tagine with turmeric and rice, for instance,” Pashman said. “And historically, potato pancakes didn’t even come into being until at least the 1700s, because that’s when people began eating more potatoes.”

Early Jews noshed on buckwheat pancakes, a gluten-free alternative fit for modern day. Latkes abroad also are made with leeks, squash and other root vegetables.

Couscous and curries

According to Joan Nathan, the renowned cookbook author and an expert in the study of Jewish cuisine and history, Israelis regularly eat latkes for breakfast and light dinners, not just during the eight days of Hanukkah.

And in France, which has the third largest population of Jews in the world, these celebrations are more about the children than the food.

“Hanukkah there doesn’t revolve around any particular food, and certainly not latkes,” said Nathan, author of the recently released Quiches, Kugels and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France (Knopf, $39.95). “It’s more about going to plays and having fun and getting together in the afternoon.”

A festive dinner may include couscous, or a North African-style tagine reflective of the large number of Sephardic Jews in France, said Nathan. Cookies, and cheese-stuffed crepes may also make the menu.

Regardless of what’s eaten, though, “all the food would have style, and look beautiful on the plate, because that’s what the food in France is like,” she said.

Even India has its own Jewish cuisine. Chef and cookbook author Gill Marks has written extensively on the subject of Jews in India. Legend has it that a shipwreck caused fleeing Jews from Israel to land upon India and start a small population there, living alongside Muslims.

During Hanukkah, festive dinners there may include different curries, rice and the occasional malida, a sweetened rice, coconut and fruit dish.

Pashman’s global Hanukkah menu has included fried Indian desserts such as gulam jamun, a milk fritter; it features the traditional oil and dairy duo. She’s also developed Hanukkah menus with influences from Syria and Greece, which have large Persian Jewish communities.

Fried tradition

Geography aside, Hanukkah’s all about the oil.

Fried foods tell the story of the tiny drop of olive oil in a menorah inside Jerusalem’s Holy Temple, defiled by the Greeks but reclaimed by the Jews after a three-year battle. Miraculously burning for eight days, the oil represented new life and hope during times of war and religious persecution.

Jews in Israel and many here feast on sufganiyot, a spongy, oil-fried doughnut traditionally filled with strawberry jam.

In France, Nathan’s seen fois gras-stufffed doughnuts. Keni Foss, co-owner of the Meatyballs Mobile food truck with chef/husband Phillip Foss, has filled her doughnuts with everything from apricot jam to Nutella, pastry cream to savory cheese.

The sufganiyot were a hit when the Fosses sold them out of friend Matt Maroni’s Gaztro-Wagon eatery this summer. The doughnuts even served as the initial inspiration for their food truck before they switched to meatballs.

Though American Jews have primarily used a less traditional vegetable oil for latkes and doughnuts, Todd Stein, chef of the Florentine, 208 S. La Salle, and a specialist in Italian cuisine, relishes the olive oil tradition. At home, he’ll intertwine other Italian foods in Hanukkah dishes.

Last year, Stein says, his butternut squash risotto with braised short ribs and salad of raw brussels sprout leaves, sea salt, toasted nuts and shavings of Italian pecorino pepato cheese went over well.

Demand for local

For Rita Gutekanst, chef/owner of Limelight Catering, switching up her Hanukkah menu, incorporating many locally produced, seasonal foods, a growing customer demand.

She’s made latkes with veggies from Green Acres, Nichols, Heritage Prairie and Kinnikinnick farms; sufganiyot filled with pureed local pumpkin, and braised dishes using meat from TJ’s Free-Range Poultry and Mint Creek Farm.

“It’s all about the flavor, and we feel we get the most flavor by using more foods from local farms,” Gutekanst says.

Brad Rubin, owner of Eleven City Diner, 1112 S. Wabash, admits he doesn’t stray far from traditional Ashkenazi foods during Hanukkah.

When he introduced a new latke using mashed versus grated potatoes spiked with Parmesan, Rubin dealt with a mini-outcry among elder customers. But with three years of success, he’s not budging.

“The change was almost blasphemy for some people,” he says. “But most people love them, and we’ve built a little following on our latkes with a twist.”

Welcome to Hanukkah, New World-style.


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