How My Bukharian Jewish Community Celebrates Hanukkah
When I was growing up in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, all of my relatives and friends lived close together, and a lot of community events happened outdoors. We Bukharian Jews would close off the streets and a few houses would be in charge of organizing a party, like a block party, for a wedding, bar mitzvah, or a yushvo (memorial).
For Hanukkah, we would all gather and light a flat menorah with oil and cotton wicks. The majority of the oil in Central Asia is made from the seeds of cotton plants, but we would prepare our own olive oil especially for the holiday. (Today we use a standing menorah because it’s much safer, but I still prefer oil to candles.) Children received gifts, but only on one night.
The tunes that we used and still use for the prayers are also different from those used by other Jewish communities. Our music is called shashmaqam, or “six notes.” This music was shared by many communities in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, and by both Jews and Muslims. My father is a musician, and he had his own orchestra that traveled around Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. That’s where my appreciation for all sorts of music comes from.
Food is, of course, an important part of Bukharian celebrations. We do everything with meat and rice. If you come to any Bukharian home for Shabbat dinner, there will be a meat dish. If you have a meal without meat, that means you need to eat a little bit more later!
One of my favorite dishes is bakhsh, which is green rice with cilantro and meat that is prepared in a sack. It used to be made with intestines, or the heart and kidneys of chicken or a bigger animal. Now it’s made from shoulder meat. People are trying to be more healthy today, so they often modify their dishes because, to be honest, Bukharian food is very fatty.
When I travel around the country speaking about my community, people sometimes ask me what differentiates Bukharian food from what I call Silk Road food, which other communities besides Bukharian Jews eat. The Silk Road refers to the networks of trade routes connecting the East with the West, from China to Samarkand, from Isfahan to India, Siberia to Britain. Silk Road food includes dumplings and stuffed cabbage. You see these dishes in China, Georgia, and Russia. Every community made their own versions.
Jewish people around the world have always taken local dishes and made them their own, often for kashrut reasons. In Bukharian homes back in Uzbekistan, you’ll find two ovens. Why? Because according to the way we observe kashrut, if you make your bread in the same oven where meat was cooked, you cannot eat it with dairy products. So you make bread in one tandir, or oven, and samsa, a savory meat pastry, in another.
There are still about 3,000 Jews in Uzbekistan, and each year I take a tour group there with Bukharian Jewish Union. Bukharian Jews are very open-minded and well-connected because they lived in the middle of the Silk Road and were exposed to so many cultures and customs and religions. Despite the fact that my ancestors lived on the outskirts of the rest of the Jewish world for 2,000 years, and despite all of the different wars and dynasties that went through that region, they managed to maintain their Jewish identity and stay connected to the Torah.
My family moved to New York in 2001 when I was 14 years old. There are about 70,000 Bukharian Jews in Queens, the second largest community outside of Israel. A few years ago I started leading walking tours of my neighborhood of Rego Park. The tours introduce New Yorkers of all stripes to Bukharian Jewish history and culture while supporting local businesses. (My next tour will take place on Sunday, December 15.)
The following recipe is for traditional Bukharian fried cookies, which you can find on any Bukharian table during Hanukkah. It is adapted from Amnun Kimyagarov’s book Classic Central Asian (Bukharian) Jewish Cuisine and Custom (2010). As with other Hanukkah recipes it is fried in oil to commemorate the miracle of the oil found by the Maccabees when they retook the Temple in Jerusalem.
I wish you all a happy Hanukkah, and I hope you will join my upcoming “Jewish Silk Road” tour if you live in New York or are visiting for the holidays. You will have an opportunity to taste these fried cookies and see a flat Bukharian menorah at the Bukharian Jewish Museum, among other new experiences!
Bukharian Fried “Twig” Cookies (Hushquiliq)
7 ¼ cups flour
½ teaspoon baking soda
1 ⅔ cup vegetable oil
2 teaspoons sugar
2 tablespoons vodka
Pinch of salt
2 tablespoons confectioners sugar for serving
- In a bowl dissolve the baking soda in vodka. Add eggs, salt, sugar and ⅜ of a cup of warm water. Stir and beat well. Add the flour. Mix. The dough should be stiff. If not, add a little more flour. Cover with a towel and let rest for one hour.
- Divide dough into 4-5 pieces. Work with each ball of dough from start to frying before beginning with the next ball.
- Roll each piece into a ball. Roll each ball into a rectangle. Because of the stiffness of the dough, rolling will be difficult and requires patience. It is essential for the final cooking and texture that the dough be as thin as possible and completely dry. If it is not dry, dust dough with extra flour.
- Cut strips that are slightly larger than ½ an inch wide. Slightly spread the index and middle finger on your non-dominant hand. Using your dominant hand gently wrap a strip around the open fingers. Close fingers and remove the roll. Repeat with other strips. The shape will resemble a loosely scrolled piece of parchment. If the roll is too tight the dough will not cook properly but if it is too loose it will unravel when cooking. Test the tightness with the first few cookies.
- While you are rolling the strips, heat the oil in a dutch oven or deep saucepan. Add the coils to the oil and cook until golden brown. Depending on the depth of your pan, you may need to flip them once to ensure even cooking. Cool in a single layer in a colander placed over paper towels. Transfer to plate and begin rolling out the next ball.
- Once all the balls are complete and all the cookies cooled, dust with powdered sugar before serving. These are best eaten within several hours of being prepared.