America goes nuts for latkes and matzo ball soup, but there is one Jewish holiday staple that deserves all the love: kugel. At its most basic level, kugel is made with a starch, eggs and a fat, but every individual family has its own take on the dish. So if you're going to a Hanukkah celebration or another Jewish holiday and see kugel on the table, you may be wondering just what it is.
There are two main types of kugel: noodle and potato. Potato kugel is usually just called what it is: “potato kugel.” Meanwhile, noodle kugel may be called “lokshen kugel,” which means “noodle pudding” in Yiddish. Though both can be made either sweet or savory, lokshen kugel is typically sweet and potato kugel is typically savory and pareve (prepared without meat or dairy ingredients).
Lokshen kugel is oftentimes like a dessert macaroni. It’s made with egg noodles in a big glass dish, and the noodles are mixed with eggs, lots of butter, sugar, some sort of dairy like cream cheese or cottage cheese, vanilla, brown sugar, and cinnamon. It’s frequently tossed with raisins or cranberries, and it’s best when it’s crunchy and brown on the top and fluffy and soft and yellow in the middle. It can be eaten hot or cold and is delicious either way — like pizza.
Potato kugel is typically made to be savory. It’s seen as kugel from “the old country” in the Jewish community, mainly because most American Jews make noodle kugel. Potato kugel is made with potatoes (duh), onions, eggs, oil, or chicken schmaltz (chicken fat) and gribenes (chicken skin with fried onion and chicken fat) if you’re someone’s 95-year-old grandmother. It’s definitely the less popular of the two, but it’s more reminiscent of Christmas and Thanksgiving potato dishes than anything else.
Making kugel is a holiday tradition that can be traced back to Eastern Europe, and thus many Jewish families in America have a family kugel recipe that has been passed down through generations and is fiercely lauded as being “the best.” It’s tradition to make it during a holiday, especially a cold-weather one like Hanukkah.
People typically bring kugel to Hanukkah parties during the eight-day celebration that is the Festival of Lights, or make it for big family dinners — as kugel recipes typically make a ton of food. However, it is not a Hanukkah-specific dish like latkes. If you’re reading this because you’ve never heard of kugel, you’re probably not Jewish. Check out our Gentile’s (non-Jewish person’s) guide to Hanukkah.