Food and food traditions play a significant role in many Jewish holidays and celebrations, and the eight days of Hanukkah are no exception. This year, Hanukkah begins at sunset on Sunday, December 18, and ends Monday, December 26. Atlanta-based food and culture writer Robbie Medwed delves into the origins behind the fried foods served during Hanukkah, including latkes and fried cheese.
When it comes to celebrating the Jewish holidays, there’s an old cliche folks should understand: “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat!” During Hanukkah, that old adage could not be more true, with food taking center stage throughout the eight-day celebration.
Over 2,200 years ago, the Assyrian-Greek Empire conquered the Jewish land centered around Jerusalem and its surrounding area. During the conquest, Judaism and its rituals were banned and the Temple in Jerusalem was defiled. Study of Torah, lifecycle events, and anything else Jewish were also outlawed. Unwilling to become Hellenized, a small group of Jewish zealots, known as the Maccabees, launched a violent revolt against their conquerors. Over the course of a few years, this small group of vigilantes successfully defeated the Greeks and restored the Temple to its former glory, re-instituting its services and rituals.
According to legend, when the Maccabees restored the Temple and prepared it for service again, they only found one day’s worth of olive oil to light the menorah, which was supposed to always burn. Miraculously, that small amount of oil lasted long enough to press more olives (eight days, of course), and from then on the celebration of the Hanukkah festival became inextricably linked with olive oil.
Today, Jewish people across the world eat foods fried in and cooked with oil during Hanukkah to symbolize the miracle that allowed the restoration of the Temple. Below, Eater rounded up a few dishes fried in oil from Atlanta restaurants to consider checking out for Hanukkah this year.
The latke, a fried pancake made from grated potatoes and onions, is America’s most common Ashkenazi Jewish Hanukkah food. It originated in Eastern Europe in the late 1800s when potatoes were ubiquitous and affordable. For traditional latkes, stop by the General Muir at Emory Point or Sandy Springs, Goldberg’s Fine Foods, and Breadwinner Cafe in Dunwoody. The Daily Chew is offering potato and carrot latkes this year with preserved lemon labneh and apple butter. Aziza at Westside Provisions District features Hanukkah family meal kits, which includes latkes with herbed labneh, apple butter, and smoked salmon, in addition to brisket or cauliflower shawarma and an assortment of sufganiyot. There’s also tater tots, or heaps of bite-sized fried potatoes.
Though the latke is most known today for being made using potatoes, onions have long been a primary ingredient. Why not branch out this year and enjoy scallion pancakes, including from Gaja Korean Bar in East Atlanta Village, La Mei Zi at Asian Square on Buford Highway, Harmony Vegetarian at the Orient Center on Buford Highway, and Xi’an Gourmet House at the Jusgo’s food court in Duluth or its new location in Midtown.
The Maccabees aren’t the only heroes of the Hanukkah story. A woman named Judith is often considered the first of the Hanukkah heroes. Before the Maccabees ever came on the scene, Judith was fighting for her family and for her people’s survival. Apocryphal stories tell how she sweet talked her way into the army compound of Holofernes, the general sent by the Assyrian ruler Nebuchadnezzar. After some deception and cunning guile, Judith seduced Holofernes with a feast of cheese and other dairy. With Holofernes in a cheese-induced sleep, Judith beheaded him with his own sword. In Judith’s honor, cheese has become a Hanukkah staple food. In fact, before potatoes, latkes were most commonly made from cheese.
For fried cheese in Atlanta, check out the fried mozzarella triangles at LLoyd’s on DeKalb Avenue or the fried mozzarella sticks at Varuni Napoli on Monroe drive or the restaurant’s stall at Krog Street Market. For something truly indulgent, consider ordering one of the white pizzas topped with olive oil and fried spaghetti covered in cheese at Ammazza on Edgewood Avenue.
There’s more to fried cheese than a simple stick of breaded mozzarella. The cheese-filled chile relleno at Taqueria Michoacan on Buford Highway is a great dish to consider during Hanukkah (or any time of year,) as are the vegetarian chile relleno at El Ponce in Poncey-Highland and Nuevo Laredo Cantina on Chattahoochee Avenue.
Hanukkah is a celebration bridging the gap between ancient Israel and the modern state of Israel because it’s so tied to the land there and to Jerusalem. And though falafel, deep-fried chickpea patties, are found at street carts and vendors throughout the Middle East and isn’t unique to Hanukkah, falafel is still a solid way to celebrate the holiday.
Located next door to Aziza at Westside Provisions District, Falafel Nation features some of Atlanta’s best falafel on the menu. Grab a pita filled to the brim with fresh falafel balls paired with za’atar spiced fries or a falafel salad. There’s also Mamoun’s Falafel nearby on Northside Drive. Over at Krog Street Market, street food stall Yalla serves the fried chickpea fritters with labneh, tahini, and sumac radish. Head to the small counter in back of Tip Top Kosher Market on Savoy Drive to order sandwiches and a side of crispy falafel.
Sufganiyot, jelly-filled doughnuts, are a traditional Hanukkah dessert. But there are other fried dessert options to consider for Hanukkah, too. In an ironic twist, the Greeks include baklava among their culinary traditions, a layered pastry treat wrapped in filo dough and stuffed with chopped nuts sweetened with syrup or sometimes honey. Baklava can be found on menus at many Atlanta Mediterranean and Greek markets and restaurants, including great versions at International Bakery on Cheshire Bridge, Zukerino Pastry Shop in Dunwoody, Mediterranean Bakery on Chamblee Tucker, and at Kyma in Buckhead.
For a decidedly modern (and decadent) fried dessert in Atlanta, try the tempura-fried Oreos topped with Nutella or chocolate sauce from Asian street food pop-up Mushi Ni. The pop-up serves out of Little Trouble at Westside Provisions District and S.O.S Tiki Bar in Decatur.
Robbie Medwed is an Atlanta-based food and culture writer and regular Eater contributor. His food writing has appeared in the Atlanta Jewish Times, the Jewish Food Experience, Grok Nation, and Eater Atlanta.