You don't need me to tell you why we eat fried foods for Hanukkah, the Jewish festival that commemorates the "rededication of the Holy Temple (the Second Temple) in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the second century BCE." In celebrating the miracle of the one-day supply of olive oil that kept the temple illuminated for eight nights, we cook in oil -- ideally, olive oil. (Check out HebCal.com for candle-lighting times and for the calendar of Jewish holidays and festivals in general.)
Jews of Eastern European origin -- Ashkenazim, like me -- traditionally prepare potato pancakes, called latkes in Yiddish, a dish adopted from German gastronomy by Jews of the diaspora (the German culinary connection is another reason that Hanukkah is so much fun in Texas, where the German heritage is part of the fabric of our lives thanks to the nineteenth-century wave of German settlements here).
Sephardi Jews -- who trace their cultural traditions, including their gastronomy, to Spain -- eat doughnuts, a dish possibly inspired by the wide variety of sweet fritters consumed in Catholic countries during the holiday season.
At our house, we make both.
For the latkes, we like to go with a traditional pairing, keeping with our motto (borrowed from New York restaurateur Danny Meyer), if it grows with it, it goes with it: Riesling from the Mosel. I love the way the wine's minerality and its residual sugar mirror the saltiness of the potatoes and the sweetness of the apple sauce, one of the classic condiments for latkes.
For our doughnuts, I like to reach for something sweet and unctuous (again, mirroring the flavor profile of the dish), but never something too expensive (save that to pair with cow's milk cheeses and honey as a meditative wine).
Pacific Rim makes some excellent, reasonably priced sweet Riesling and there are a number of well priced bottlings of Sauternes out there, like the Château Rieussec, one of my favorites for the price (under $25 for 375ml) and readily available in our market.
And if you're invited to a Hanukkah party this year and don't know what to take to your hosts as a gift, my suggestion is to bring a bottle of top-quality extra-virgin olive oil. It's a great way to celebrate the Festival of Lights.
And please remember: Hanukkah is not a holiday like Christmas. It's a festival (not a holy day). In fact, the U.S. -- the land of the politically (in)correct -- is the only country in the world where Hanukkah is associated with Christmas and gift giving.
How do you wish someone a happy festival of lights? Hanukkah sameach!
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