Who is responsible for the foods we serve for Hanukkah today? The answer might surprise you.
Sephardic Hanukkah specialties, many of which consist of deep fried dough flavored with honey and sesame seeds, all originate from a special honey cake introduced to the Levant by Alexander the Great.
Judea was conquered from the Persians by Alexander in 332 BCE. It was under Greek rule for 191 years, until the Maccabees created the Hasmonean state in Israel in 141 BCE.
The Jews of the upper classes of Judea became Hellenized under Alexander. Josephus explains in his book, The Jewish War, that one of the reasons for the Maccabean revolt against the Seleucid Empire in 167 BCE was a civil war between the wealthy, Hellenized Jews of Jerusalem, and the traditionalist Jews of the countryside.
The Hellenized Jews wanted to discard all Jewish traditions, including circumcision, while the traditionalists ferociously guarded their rituals, which ended up sparking a civil war between them. King Antiochus IV Epiphanes sided with the Hellenized Jews, and decided to try to crush the traditionalists.
Antiochus’ prohibitions against practicing Judaism and desecration of the Temple led to the Jewish Revolt, which lasted two years. In 165 BCE the Maccabees were victorious. They cleaned, purified, and rededicated the Temple in Jerusalem, and then celebrated the Festival of Lights for eight days. This celebration included feasting, and one of Alexander’s signature treats was on the menu.
What foods did Alexander introduce to Judea?
One ancient Greek recipe that goes back to those days is for honey-sesame fritters. These treats were served at the Greek symposia, “drinking parties.”
Tiganites me meli, “honey cakes,” were believed to absorb alcohol. They remained in the Jewish cuisine in the form of loukoumades, “honey doughnuts,” flavored with sesame seeds, which are served by Sephardic Jews in honor of Hanukkah. Here is the recipe introduced by Alexander.
Honey-Sesame Fritters: Arxaies Tiganites Me Meli K
Adapted from The Classical Cookbook by Andrew Dalby and Sally Grainger.
- 1 cup unbleached flour
- 1/2 cup cold water
- 2 tablespoons honey
- 1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds
- olive oil
- Mix the flour, water, and 1 tablespoon of honey in a bowl.
- Heat the olive oil over a medium flame in a heavy frying pan.
- Drop a tablespoon of batter into the hot oil.
- Flip the pancake over when it is golden-brown.
- When both sides have cooked, place the fritters on a serving platter.
- Drizzle a tablespoon of honey over them.
- Sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds.
Published in The Philadelphia Jewish Voice.