The piece excerpted below originally appeared at The Jew & The Carrot, a food blog partnership between Forward and Hazon. During each of the eight days of Hanukkah, author and donut aficionado Temim Fruchter, will post her recommendation for “the finest Hanukkah-appropriate donuts out there.”
For as long as I can remember, the thing that has signified Hanukkah – more than the kitsch rainbow-colored candles or the unmistakable smells of frying onions and potatoes merging – has been the telltale bakery box. Maybe you know the one. It’s large, flat, rectangular and white. You can’t tell from looking at the top, but to peer inside once the contents are emptied is to reveal poetry in grease spots – the sure aftermath of something profoundly deep-fried and incomparably satisfying. In a word, sufganiyot.
Growing up, come Hanukkah time, like any child fanatical for her deep-fried-holiday goodies, I never asked “Why donuts?” And I certainly never asked “Why filled donuts?” Of course, when I did finally get around to asking, the answers were either 1) because the miracle was a miracle of oil, so: we fry and 2) because that’s what they do in Israel.
But there must be more historical and diasporic reasons. According to the Forward’s Philologos, one version of culinary history argues that sufganiyot have their origins in Sicily, where they were called sfinj – the Arabic word for sponge and also the moniker for deep-fried donuts made by Jews in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. Another rendition of donut history – by Claudia Roden – purports that the donuts in question were originally a peasant carnival snack in Austro-Hungary, only to go on to become a delicacy at the French court of Marie Antoinette. The Yiddish word ponchkes is also cited in Roden’s writing as being directly connected to sufganiyot. All in all, from France to Italy – or in this case, beignets to zeppoli – the birthplace of the very first sufgania is still somewhat powdered in mystery. But perhaps it is best that way; an interesting food merits a complex and rich history.