What's On Indian Hanukkah Menus?
Image Credit: Hanukkah

Hanukkah is celebrated to mark the victory of the Maccabees — a Jewish guerrilla army in the Land of Judea — over their Syrian-Greek oppressors in the 2nd Century BC. 

During their conquest, the Syrian-Greek army had taken control of the Second Temple of Jerusalem, and defiled the holy oil used to light the sacred menorah (candelabra). 

When the Maccabees regained the Temple, they found that only a minuscule amount of oil was still pure enough to use. They lit the menorah with this, but miraculously it was enough to keep the flames burning for the eight days it took to procure anointed oil anew. Hanukkah celebrates this miracle, and the rededication of the Second Temple. 

OIL — especially olive oil — has great significance in Jewish tradition. It is seen as representing the highest quality of human wisdom, because it always floats to the top of anything it is mixed with. And wisdom gained from the holy scriptures is seen as the highest/purest attribute of all. With its deep rooted role in the rededication of the Second Temple, oil remains a vital part of Hanukkah celebrations even today. This is why fried foods take centrestage during the eight days of Hanukkah.

Traditionally in the West, latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot/sufganiyah (jelly-filled donuts) are prepared for the Hanukkah table. But in India, the Jewish communities in Kerala, Maharashtra, West Bengal and the Northeast have fused the significance of these festive foods with local influences. 

The Bene Israelis in Mumbai and other parts of Maharashtra, for instance, are likely to have samosas, fried fish like bombil (Bombay duck), bhajiyas and pakoras on their Hanukkah menu. They also prepare a sweet known as malida (flattened rice, powdered sugar, shredded coconut) and sat padar puri (a seven-layered, deep-fried, crescent-shaped pastry with a semolina, nuts and cardamon filling).

Piyaju is a type of onion or cauliflower fritter (with a chickpea flour base) made by Kolkata Jews, while those from Telangana and Andhra Pradesh rely on ariselu (similar to the anarsa), purnalu (dumplings made of rice flour, jaggery, dals and dry fruits) and pakam (medu vada-like donuts) to sweeten their Hanukkah menu.

Kochi and Baghdadi Jews in Kerala have pakoras and vadas of course, but fried delicacies like the pazham pozhi (fritters made of the long Kerala banana known as nendra pazham) and neyyappam (sweet rice dumplings) are indulged in as well, for good measure. 

The Jewish communities in the states of Mizoram and Manipur tend to have dishes similar to those of Western cultures, with jam donuts and sweet pancakes jostling for space on the table alongside baked confections. The more savoury fried foodstuffs are represented by potato chips (!), and the ubiquitous pakoras. 

The diversity of Hanukkah food in India represents the assimilation of the Jewish communities in the regions and communities they have, over several centuries now, called home.