Jolly, oily and cheesy

Jolly, oily and cheesy

Today is the last day to light the candle of Hanukkah. This year the dates of the Jewish festival of lights and the festive period between Christmas day and New Year’s Eve coincided. Both Christianity and Jewish faiths have strong roots in Anatolia.

I cannot help but wonder what the foods favored in this geography on such festive days centuries ago were, especially at Jewish celebrations as each food must have a certain significance referring to a historical fact and has to adhere to kosher rules. Surely it was not potato latkes fried in schmaltz!

Oil is essential in Hanukkah to pay homage to the miracle of oil that lasted to illuminate the Temple for eight days. That is the reason behind eating lots of fried food. Potato latkes are almost synonymous with Hanukkah. But we all know that potato is a rather late introduction to the Old World, a New World crop that has its origins in the Andes.

It became a staple food in Eastern Europe as late as early the 19th century, making it pretty clear that the original latke cannot be based on potatoes. It was probably a grain-based fried pancake in Eastern and Central Europe. Most sources claim that the very original latkes were a sort of fried cheese or a cheese fritter as cheese or dairy products are another must-eat ingredient of Hanukkah. One early 14th century recipe found in Italian documents is simply fried ricotta.

According to the story, the courageous Jewish girl Yehudit/Judith fed the enemy general Holofernes with loads of salty cheese to make him thirsty and offered him copious amounts of wine to quench his thirst; eventually he falls asleep and Yehudit cuts his head freeing her people. Though historically obscure, this is how the story goes. So, some sort of cheese or dairy must be in the scene.

If cheese was originally included in such fritters, they must have been fried in a plant-based oil. This must be later omitted in colder countries where Schmaltz, rendered goose, duck or chicken fat is the main cooking medium. Obviously as animal fat and dairy would not go together making the food non-kosher, cheese was out from latkes.

Instead of potato, a squash variety could have been the choice of vegetable, probably not the green zucchini variety but the white or pale-yellow fleshed winter squash, which is still used in southeast Turkey as a vegetable. As said, frying fat must have been plant-based oils, olive oil where available, or even poppy seed oil or sesame oil if not in an olive oil zone.

Jolly, oily and cheesy

But it is mostly the olive oil; notice that Hanukkah also falls just into the midst or end of the olive-pressing season. My wild guess is all sorts of mücver, a popular Turkish veggie patty, must have been ideal as Hanukkah food. Mücver is fritters of many sorts, usually grated vegetables, mostly zucchini, bound with eggs and a little flour, mixed with some crumbled cheese, chopped spring onions and fresh herbs, a delightful fresh tasting cheesy oily delight.

Another Hanukkah favorite is sufganiyot, a sweet doughnut or Berliner with jelly or cream filling, but this is very central-eastern European as well. Thinking of the Turkish equivalents, lokma (meaning a morsel of food) or hanım göbeği (meaning ladies’ navel) both fried leavened dough dipped in syrup fit in the context perfectly. But I have another suggestion. “Yassı Kadayıf” in Turkish cuisine matches perfectly with Hanukkah. Kadayıf refers to various syrup-soaked pan-cooked sweets, the dough variety can range from dried bread rusks to thin threads of griddled batter, but in this case it refers to pancake-like dough, pretty similar to British crumpets.

Yassı means flat, but it is also called taş kadayıf, (taş means stone) as it used to be cooked on heated stone or marble slabs. Sometimes it is even called Arap kadayıfı, hinting that it belongs to Arabs, in that case referring to any Middle Eastern or African origin. Actually, Ethiopian injera, Yemenite lahoh and Maghreb baghriri has close similarities with their spongy texture. They are all slightly frothy batter, either leavened with yeast or briefly fermented, cooked on a flat heated surface one side only, leaving the other side with open air pockets, ideal for dipping in sauces or mopping the cooking liquids of a dish.

In Turkey, yassı kadayıf is saucer-sized, usually just dipped in egg and fried, whereas taş kadayıf usually refers to the same dough, but filled with walnuts, folded into half-moons and then fried, then bathed in syrup. One version has a clotted cream or curd cheese, usually lor peyniri, which is almost identical to ricotta, as a filling, and that is the one I find most fit for today, the last day to light the candle. Sweet, cheesy, oily and jolly good!

Recipe of the Week: 

It is very easy to make taş kadayıf, just take a dozen or so readily sold yassı kadayıf, usually to be found at the yufka shop in your neighborhood. First prepare the syrup by boiling 3 cups of sugar with 2 cups of water for about 10 minutes, add a squeeze of lemon before removing from fire. Set aside to cool. Put a spoonful of lor peyniri or ricotta on each piece. Take care to put the filling on the porous side, when folded, the smooth side should be outside. Pinch the edges firmly. Shallow fry in a pan filled with frying oil, preferably olive oil, turning once or twice. When golden on both sides, remove from the pan and dip in the syrup for a few seconds, remove with slotted spoon. Serve lukewarm.  

Fork of the Week: 

These days, two chefs I admire a lot have wonderful versions of taş kadayıf on their menus. Chef Pınar Taşdemir of Araka Restaurant in Yeniköy has long had a delicate version laced with lavender infused syrup. Hers is half-moon shaped as the traditional version, stuffed with almonds, fried in olive oil and topped with lavender ice cream. Simply sublime! Now chef Fatih Tutak has another version in his newly opened TURK Restaurant in Bomonti. His is round, filled with pistachio cream and cheese, künefe cheese to be precise, the type that oozes when hot. Very tempting indeed!  

Cork of the Week: 

Sweets require sweet wines. The most exciting new sweet wine is to be found only at a single place: Sunset Restaurant. The one and only wine is found only in this restaurant because it is specially produced by the leading winery of Turkey, for the one and only sweetheart of the owner of the restaurant. Celebrating their 25th year of anniversary and also the 25th year of the restaurant, owner Barış Tansever gave a surprise gift to his wife Alize. The wine named after his sweetheart, he did not hold back also tagging it sweet & stern, asserting her dominance in the relationship. Bearing strong flavors of sun-dried apricots, the wine is ideal with such bold festive sweets!