I can’t be the only one who, year after year, is disappointed by Hanukkah food. On paper, it sounds great: crisp potato latkes, sugar-dusted donuts, sticky sfenj, savory-sweet keftes de prasa — a feast of salt, fat, sugar, and complex carbohydrates. But more often than not, the keftes and latkes are under-seasoned, soggy, and oil-ridden; the donuts have barely any filling (or, worse, are filled with jelly that’s never met a strawberry in its miserable life); the sfenj are dense.
It’s all so frustrating.
An eternal optimist, I chose to broaden my Hanukkah horizon a couple of years ago. There’s a treasure trove of Jewish fried food from around that world that, though not explicitly associated with Hanukkah, fits the spirit of the holiday. I delved deep into the archives — schnitzel, malawach, kichels, gulab jamun, carciofi alla giudìa (deep-fried artichokes) and, best of all, gribenes.
This mix of sweet fried onions and chicken skin crisped up in its own rendered fat (AKA schmaltz) is the perfect Hanukkah food for so many reasons. Let’s get into them:
1. They’re Delicious
Sounds obvious, but years of living in Israel and sampling the annual array of extravagant, but mediocre tasting, sufganiyot have taught me that deliciousness has little to do with appearance. Sure, gribenes kind of resemble a newborn’s bellybutton (and if that puts you off, you don’t deserve them), but crispy chicken skin + jammy onions + schmaltz = indisputable yum.
2. ’Tis the Season to Treat Yourself
Eating fried foods on Hanukkah is basically the 614th mitzvah; it’s a holiday that celebrates indulgence! There is nothing nutritiously beneficial about gribenes — and that’s OK. Latkes, at least, are filling, what with all those carbs, but gribenes are not filling! Nor do they contain vegetables to soften the blow of their cholesterol hit. They are a true treat — and, guys, we deserve them.
3. … But Not Too Much
Gribenes are a real patchke to make, and you need a lot of chicken skin. My grandmother’s in the habit of hoarding scraps of chicken skin in the freezer — the offcuts of her Friday night roast chicken — for months until she’s collected enough to make a small batch. Consequently, it’s basically impossible to overeat gribenes (unlike donuts); if you don’t relish every bite of your modest ration, they’ll be gone before you even have a chance to register their glory.
While they may not be traditional Hanukkah food, gribenes are certainly old-school Ashkenazi fare; Jewish food writer Tori Avey dates them back to Medieval Germany. But they’re a dying art (see my previous patchke point). Perhaps by using Hanukkah to celebrate them, we can keep this generations-old comfort food from disappearing.
5. They’re Thrifty
Hanukkah is, at its core, a celebration of a little bit going a long way. Just as one night’s worth of oil lasted for eight nights, so do seemingly pathetic poultry offcuts make their own, small miracle: gribenes. Perhaps gribenes are the real miracle of Hanukkah?