If you’re not Jewish, hearing your friends argue over the correct spelling of Hanukkah — is it Hanukkah, Chanukah or Hanukah — and salivate over Jewish foods can make you feel a little left out. Here’s a handy glossary of Hanukkah (my favorite spelling) dishes so you too can share in your friends’ love of Jewish cuisine.
The latke is best explained by Angelica in the Rugrats Chanukah episode (after taking a big bite of a potato pancake and spitting it out), “Blech! Yuck! Tapatos! What kind of bo-bo-head makes pancakes outta Tapatos!” Potato pancakes, otherwise known as latkes, are fried pancakes of grated potato, flour, egg and oftentimes onion and other seasonings. The most common toppings for latkes are sour cream and applesauce, and sometimes both together.
2. Matzo Ball Soup
Why are there giant balls floating in broth with carrot pieces the size of my head? How are you supposed to eat this stuff? And what are matzo balls supposed to taste like exactly? Mazto balls at their worst are dense and flavorless and at their best are light and fluffy. They absorb the chicken broth they’re served in, all the schmaltzy goodness (schmaltz is the Yiddish word for rendered chicken fat). My advice is to break up the matzo ball into little pieces with your spoon so you can distribute it evenly throughout the bowl of soup.
As a New York Jew, I take it for granted. Everyone doesn’t know what challah is, and it is a shame! Challah is an egg-based bread, kind of like a brioche except that challah doesn’t have butter or milk. Whether it’s beautifully braided for Shabbat or served round for the Jewish New Year, challah is a Jewish holiday staple. Challah is flavorful and moist on the inside with a distinct dark crust because of the applied egg wash prior to baking. Try it with chopped liver (I’ll get to that in a minute) or as the bread in French toast.
4. Gefilte Fish
These slime-covered balls of various fish is, I’ll admit, less than appealing visually… and texturally… and taste-wise. Gefilte fish is covered in a goopy, jelly-like brine that you scrape off after you take each fish nugget out of the glass jar. It’s not difficult to see why this dish isn’t the most popular, even among Jews. Gefilte fish is certainly something you either love or you hate, and personally I love it with a ton of Gold’s red horseradish.
5. Chopped Liver
Chopped Liver is probably the hardest Jewish food to share with your friends. Chopped liver is exactly what it sounds like — chopped chicken liver. The liver is sautéed in schmaltz, often with onions and hard-boiled eggs. Chopped liver can be overlooked and forgotten, hence the saying “What am I, chopped liver?” but this side dish, when made properly, should be elevated to center stage. As mentioned above, my advice is to spread some on a chunk of challah.
These yummy jelly doughnuts are an Israeli treat that Jews love on Hanukkah, and it’s not difficult to see why. Sufganiyot are deep-fried, filled with jelly and topped with powdered sugar. The deep-frying of these doughnuts commemorates the famous oil from the Hanukkah story.
Rugelach is another one of those great things with a ton of different ways to spell it — but no matter how you do, there’s no debate that this treat is the perfect end to any meal. Rugelach are little sheets of flaky dough, most popularly filled with cinnamon or chocolate, rolled up and baked to chewy, yet crispy perfection.
The word literally means “money,” and these gold foil-wrapped chocolate coins are used as just that in the traditional game of dreidel on Hanukkah (where Gelt are traded among the players based on how the dreidel lands). Part of the fun of the game is sneaking these little chocolate morsels when no one else is looking. If Gelt seem weird, don’t fret — just think of them as circular Hershey’s bars that just happen to have a menorah or Star of David imprinted on them.