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Learning to Fry

The 50th anniversary edition of The Menorah Cook Book comes just in time to master the culinary delights of Chanukah, the Jewish Festival of Lights.


In the same way that Christmas brings to mind Santa, pine trees hung with sparkling baubles, and mince pies, Chanukah (pronounced Ha-Nu-Kah), which begins on 12 December this year and runs for eight nights, evokes images of dreidels (spinning tops), menorahs (candelabras) — and fried food.


In countries like the United States, Chanukah tries to compete with Christmas — you’ll see Chanukah bushes hung with Stars of David. But in New Zealand with its relatively tiny Jewish population, less (perhaps even little) is known about this Jewish holiday.


There’s an old Jewish joke that condenses the massive scope of Jewish history into a single pithy statement, describing each of the Jewish holidays from Purim and Passover to Chanukah thus: “They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat!” And oil is central to the Chanukah story. Are you starting to see the fried food connection? Good. More about that later.


First an abridged version of the story: When the Maccabees, also known as the Hasmoneans, defeated foreign invaders in ancient Jerusalem, around 165 BC, they found their temple had been desecrated. This temple housed an eternal flame and the Maccabees immediately set about reconsecrating it with oil that ought to have run out in a day. The miracle of Chanukah is that this tiny amount of oil kept the flame burning for eight days.


So on each night of Chanukah, to remember this miracle one more brightly coloured candle is added to the menorah until all eight candles are lit and on the final night a ninth — the candle used to light the other eight — is left to burn too. To celebrate, food fried in oodles of oil — starting with potato latkes and ending with the somewhat lesser known, but equally central, sufganiyot (an Israeli-style jam doughnut) — is eaten. There are less oily dishes too — brisket is traditionally served, as is a pudding made from noodles called lokchen that is possibly to Chanukah what stuffing is to Christmas.


These recipes and many more tried and tested (and often closely-guarded) Kiwi-Jewish family recipes, can be found in the 50th anniversary edition of The Menorah Cook Book, published to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of the Auckland Hebrew Congregation’s Synagogue and Community Centre at 108 Greys Avenue in central Auckland.


Originally published in 1967 to augment the funds for the Synagogue and Community Centre, The Menorah Cook Book’s recipes were submitted by the Jewish women of New Zealand. Continued popularity and demand saw a second edition published in 1969 and a third in 1979. A note in the 1979 edition describes the recipes as “not only the Jewish traditional, but also the exotic and unusual”. Alexa Johnstone, author of cookbooks celebrating New Zealand’s culinary history, references recipes from the original Menorah Cook Book in her book, Ladies, a Plate. She agrees that The Menorah Cook Book “always had the fanciest recipes”.


For the 50th anniversary edition, recipes that have managed to age gracefully over the last half-century remain alongside more modern recipes collected from the Synagogue’s current member families and the adjoining Greys Avenue Deli, Auckland’s only kosher café. Recipes for challah (plaited brioche-style loaves), chopped liver, chopped herring, gefilte fish balls, chicken soup with kneidels (dumplings), hamentashen (triangle-shaped pastries), blintzes (folded crepes filled with sweet cream cheese), kreplach (meat dumplings), holishkes (individual stuffed cabbage leaves) and more will appeal to anyone interested in Jewish cuisine. There’s even a recipe for a chickpea latke to try along with the potato ones on Chanukah.


Of course, deep-frying is not for the faint of heart. But there are some tips from those in the know to make the job a little easier. Darya Bing, who prepared the latkes for this story, used a grater found at a Japanese store to grate the potatoes and onion as finely as possible. Then she squeezed out the moisture before frying for ultimate crispiness. It goes without saying that paper towel is your best friend once the latkes are cooked. Bing serves them Israeli-style with hummus, garlic, tomatoes, olives, and a dollop of sour cream, but Jews who descended from Eastern Europe also eat latkes with applesauce or cinnamon and sugar. For the sufganiyot, Danit Lawrence demonstrated a nifty kitchen hack to help the doughnuts retain their round shape — squares of baking paper lowered into the hot oil prior to the ball of dough and then carefully scooped out a moment later. If you want your sufganiyot to look professional, buy a doughnut injector from a kitchen supplies store. Otherwise the back of a wooden spoon and a pastry bag will do.


Words: Nadine Rubin Nathan