Food plays an important role in just about every major Jewish holiday. There’s the Passover Seder, the Yom Kippur break-the-fast, the traditional Purim feast ... the list goes on. As for Hanukkah, even though potato latkes may be the food that’s most closely tied to the holiday, there are a wide variety of foods that are traditionally eaten over the eight-day celebration.
As opposed to the Passover Seder, in which certain dishes like charoset and gefilte fish are basically mandatory, Hanukkah meals aren’t too strict. But like Passover, symbolism plays a big role: fried foods are traditionally served (as a reminder of a one-day supply of oil that burned for eight in the original Hanukkah story), as is dairy (Judith reportedly charmed her way into an enemy Babylonian camp with cheese and wine, and beheaded the enemy general when he passed out).
You’ll find plenty of fried foods on the list below, which also incorporates lots of traditional celebratory dishes of Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jews (who account for more than 90% of all Jews in the U.S.) as well as traditional Hanukkah treats enjoyed by Sephardic and Mizrahi (Iberian, North African and Middle Eastern) Jews and the Jewish diaspora around the world.
Potato latkes are the most well-known of all Hanukkah foods. Also called potato pancakes, this versatile dish starts with shredded potatoes, which are squeezed until dry and mixed with onions and eggs before being formed into a patty and fried. Here’s a great recipe; top yours with applesauce, sour cream or smoked salmon.
Hanukkah gelt are gold foil-wrapped chocolate coins that are traditionally given to children during Hanukkah. They’re great for a quick treat but are also used as game pieces while playing the traditional game of spinning the dreidel.
An old-school noodle kugel (sometimes called noodle pudding) is a casserole that’s perfect for a large group, so it usually finds its way to Hanukkah dinners. This sweet side dish is made by baking egg noodles, butter, cottage cheese, eggs, sugar and a little cinnamon and vanilla (and sometimes pineapple and/or raisins until the top is crispy), and it’s super easy to prepare. You can find a great recipe for it here.
Brisket is an inexpensive cut that benefits from long, slow cooking, so it’s an ideal main course when the Hanukkah meal includes meat. (Jewish law dictates that meat and dairy shouldn’t be eaten during the same meal). There’s no specific holiday brisket recipe, as each family usually has its own. We’re partial to this one, which uses Coca-Cola for a hint of sweetness.
It’s not a Jewish feast without at least one challah. This traditional braided egg bread (which you can totally make at home) is light and tender, and it tastes even better when smeared with butter and dunked into some matzo ball soup. Speaking of which ...
There’s no better first course on a Jewish holiday table than a big bowl of matzo ball soup. Matzo balls (called knaidlach in Yiddish) are made by simply combining matzo meal with eggs, a little baking powder and some schmaltz (chicken fat, the secret to great Jewish cooking), rolling them into balls and boiling them in chicken stock for a half-hour or so. Sure, you can always buy a batch, but the dish is so easy to make on your own.
The knish comes in many forms, but its simplest definition is a mashed potato mixed with onion filling that’s covered with dough and baked or deep-fried. In addition to potatoes, buckwheat and spinach fillings are also common. They can be round, rectangular or square, and the crust is usually chewy, flaky and buttery. They’re dense and filling, and make for an especially carb-heavy lunch or snack, but they’re undeniably delicious.
Tzimmes is most closely associated with Rosh Hashannah, but it’s an all-around holiday favorite. It’s made by slowly stewing carrots with dried fruits like prunes and raisins; other root vegetables like yams are also common. They’re cooked down with honey and spices including sugar until tender and sticky with glaze. We’re especially fond of this recipe, which also includes thyme, ground ginger and sunflower seeds.
Among the most popular (and beloved) of all Jewish treats, rugelach are a must-have on any Jewish holiday dessert table. To make them, a sour cream- or cream cheese-based dough is cut into triangles and rolled up with a wide variety of fillings, which can include jam, chocolate, cinnamon, nuts, poppy seeds and marzipan (they can also be rolled up like a log and sliced). They’re a perfect dessert or breakfast (or mid-day nosh) and are incredibly easy to make at home.
Babka very well might be the most decadent of all Jewish desserts. Babka starts with a buttery brioche-like dough, which is rolled and braided with any of a wide variety of fillings (usually chocolate, hazelnut spread or cinnamon sugar) before being tucked into a loaf pan, doused with sugar syrup and baked. Like most decadent chocolate desserts, it’s best enjoyed warm. Here’s a recipe for one filled with brown sugar, walnuts and whiskey.
Loukoumades are a traditional dessert popular among Jews of Greek origin during Hanukkah. They’re deep-fried balls of dough doused with honey syrup and usually topped with chopped nuts.
Jalebi are a very popular dessert in the Middle East, South Asia and North Africa, and are a Hanukkah favorite among Jews from those regions. They’re made by piping a thin stream of dough into oil (similar to a mini funnel cake) and then soaking the dough in sugar syrup. They’re chewy and sticky, and are served hot or cold. In this recipe, they’re colored with turmeric and flavored with saffron.
Sfenj is a popular Hanukkah food among Jews in Israel, Morocco and Northern Africa. Like most other Hanukkah treats, they’re made by frying dough. In this case, a sticky leavened dough is formed into rings, fried like a doughnut and eaten plain or dusted with sugar.
Halloumi cheese originated in Cyprus and is frequently found on Hanukkah tables in the Mediterranean region. As opposed to most other cheeses, which simply melt when exposed to high heat, this dense, fresh white cheese sears to a golden brown. You can serve it simply sliced and seared on both sides (a drizzle of good olive oil completes the dish) or as part of a salad.
Bourekas are a classic Turkish pastry and a popular Hanukkah dish among Sephardic Jews. To make bourekas, a savory filling is wrapped up in flaky phyllo dough, and they’re brushed with butter and baked. Popular fillings include ground meat, cheese, eggplant and spinach.
Cholent is a traditional Jewish stew that was developed to be eaten during the sabbath. Because Jewish law forbids cooking on Saturdays, all the ingredients could be put in the pot on Friday and cooked throughout the night to be eaten on Saturday. It’s commonly made with meat, beans, potatoes and barley; Sephardic Jews typically also add whole eggs.
Teiglach are a traditional Rosh Hashannah treat (the holiday, which celebrates the Jewish New Year, is celebrated with lots of sweet foods, so there’s some Hanukkah crossover). These are made by dropping small balls of eggy dough directly into a pot of boiling honey-based syrup and slowly simmering them for about an hour until they’re a deep golden brown. They’re served with candied cherries and nuts.
Blintzes are thin crepes rolled up with either a sweet ricotta or fruit-based filling and pan-fried. They’re super easy to make and insanely delicious as a breakfast dish, but also can be layered in a dish and topped with a sweetened sour cream mixture to be made into a casserole, usually called a “blintz souffle,” for a family gathering.
Another legendary (and legendarily divisive) Jewish forshpeis (appetizer), chopped liver is made by blending sauteed chicken livers, chicken fat, caramelized onions and fortified wine. For those who love it, it’s rich and comforting, and delicious when spread onto a slice of challah. For those who don’t, just a whiff of it can be nauseating.
Borscht is a beet-based soup that’s popular in Eastern Europe and Russia. There are many different recipes, but most contain beef stock, diced vegetables, potatoes and vinegar and are garnished with dill and sour cream. It’s hearty, healthy, super easy to make and a great way to warm up on a cold December day.
You might only know schav as the murky green liquid in bottles in your supermarket’s “ethnic” aisle, but when freshly made, it’s a delicious soup. An Eastern European Jewish specialty, this soup’s main ingredient is a leafy green called sorrel, which is simmered until soft and mixed with beaten eggs and a little lemon juice.
Stuffed cabbage is a Jewish classic, with a tangy sauce and a slightly sweet-sour flavor profile. Sometimes called holishkes, stuffed cabbage is made by rolling cooked cabbage leaves up with a mixture of ground beef, rice, onions and spices and simmering them in a sweet, vinegary tomato-based sauce for a couple hours.
Kasha varnishkes are a must-have on the Jewish holiday table, and a must-have comfort food. Technically, it’s a pasta dish, but there’s nothing else quite like it: To make it, bowtie pasta is combined with whole buckwheat kernels (called kasha), caramelized onions and no shortage of chicken fat.
While technically a Passover treat, coconut macaroons are never an unwelcome dessert. They’re also super easy to make, only requiring shredded coconut, sugar, flour and a little vanilla extract (some contain just coconut and sweetened condensed milk, making them even easier to prepare). Eat them warm out of the oven, or dunk them in chocolate before letting them cool. Honestly, they’re so delicious that they should be a must-have on any dessert table during the Holiday season.
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