Everyone knows — or at least every Jew knows — the story of Hanukkah’s origins, the story of how just a tiny amount of oil miraculously burned for eight days. And they know that, in the spirit of that story, Hanukkah is celebrated in part by eating foods fried in oil, such as latkes and doughnuts.
But in much of the world, Hanukkah also is celebrated by eating salty cheeses. And for that, there is another and equally fascinating — though in the United States lesser known — story.
The short version goes something like this: Around 2 B.C., a Jewish widow saved her people by ingratiating herself with an enemy general, plying him with salty cakes of cheese, then wine to quench the thirst it brought. When he fell into a drunken stupor, she lopped off his head with his own sword.
When this story became associated with Hanukkah is unclear. Jewish cookbook author Joan Nathan says that Hanukkah most likely was originally celebrated around the winter solstice and that the role of oil was related to the light it helped create during this darkest time of year.
Olive oil became an important part of this “festival of lights” and the foods eaten during the celebration were a nod to this, as was the story of the miraculous and essential oil. Latkes, or pancakes fried in oil, were initially made of eggs and flour or sometimes cheese, and this could be when the story of the salty cheese cakes took off.
Jews in Southern Europe gravitated toward the Hanukkah dairy tradition and often prepared a variation of savillum, a traditional Roman cheesecake made with ricotta, eggs, flour and honey.
The potato latke came later, says Nathan, when locals adapted the fried pancake tradition to a crop they had on hand in great abundance.
Dennis Wasko, a kosher chef from Chicago, grew up with the oil tradition of Hanukkah, but in recent years has added dairy to his family’s tradition. He likes to make a Sephardic-style cheese fritter called bunuelos de queso, which are made with eggs, flour and a salty dry cheese such as Greek mizithra, ricotta salata or even farmer’s cheese.
The mixture is formed into little balls or pancakes, then fried in oil (tying in the other popular Hanukkah tradition) and served drizzled with honey.
Wasko says that he has even commemorated the story of the widow and the general more literally by serving a dish of salty cheese along with some wine to quench the thirst it inevitably creates. Of course, he leaves the beheadings out of the celebration.