Alexander the Great’s Hanukkah Treats

photo (10)Who is responsible for the foods we serve for Hanukkah today? The answer might surprise you.

Sephardic Hanukkah specialties, many of which consist of deep fried dough flavored with honey and sesame seeds, all originate from a special honey cake introduced to the Levant by Alexander the Great.

Judea was conquered from the Persians by Alexander in 332 BCE. It was under Greek rule for 191 years, until the Maccabees created the Hasmonean state in Israel in 141 BCE.

The Jews of the upper classes of Judea became Hellenized under Alexander. Josephus explains in his book, The Jewish War, that one of the reasons for the Maccabean revolt against the Seleucid Empire in 167 BCE was a civil war between the wealthy, Hellenized Jews of Jerusalem, and the traditionalist Jews of the countryside.

The Hellenized Jews wanted to discard all Jewish traditions, including circumcision, while the traditionalists ferociously guarded their rituals, which ended up sparking a civil war between them. King Antiochus IV Epiphanes sided with the Hellenized Jews, and decided to try to crush the traditionalists.

Antiochus’ prohibitions against practicing Judaism and desecration of the Temple led to the Jewish Revolt, which lasted two years. In 165 BCE the Maccabees were victorious. They cleaned, purified, and rededicated the Temple in Jerusalem, and then celebrated the Festival of Lights for eight days. This celebration included feasting, and one of Alexander’s signature treats was on the menu.

What foods did Alexander introduce to Judea?

One ancient Greek recipe that goes back to those days is for honey-sesame fritters. These treats were served at the Greek symposia, “drinking parties.”

Tiganites me meli, “honey cakes,” were believed to absorb alcohol. They remained in the Jewish cuisine in the form of loukoumades, “honey doughnuts,” flavored with sesame seeds, which are served by Sephardic Jews in honor of Hanukkah. Here is the recipe introduced by Alexander.

Honey-Sesame Fritters: Arxaies Tiganites Me Meli K

Adapted from The Classical Cookbook by Andrew Dalby and Sally Grainger.

  • 1 cup unbleached flour
  • 1/2 cup cold water
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds
  • olive oil
  1.  Mix the flour, water, and 1 tablespoon of honey in a bowl.
  2. Heat the olive oil over a medium flame in a heavy frying pan.
  3. Drop a tablespoon of batter into the hot oil.
  4. Flip the pancake over when it is golden-brown.
  5. When both sides have cooked, place the fritters on a serving platter.
  6. Drizzle a tablespoon of honey over them.
  7. Sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds. 

Savory Treats in the Samaritan Sukkah


A Samaritan sukkah. Photo: Ben Sedaka

— by Ronit Treatman

In Exodus (23:16), we are commanded to keep the harvest festival.  The harvest festival referred to is sukkot.  To this day, many of us build temporary booths outside, decorate them, and eat or even sleep in them. There also exists an ancient Samaritan tradition of building indoor sukkot. The Samaritans serve their guests unique treats, that hearken back to ancient Israel, during the time before the Babylonian captivity.

Samaritans believe that they are the descendants of the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh.  They believe that are the offspring of the Jews who remained in Israel during the Babylonian Exile (597 BCE).  When the Judean exiles returned to Jerusalem from Babylonia (538 BCE), they rejected the Samaritans, out of concern that their practices and beliefs had diverged during the decades of separation.  The Samaritans built their temple on Mount Gerizim.  They have a Samaritan Torah, and do not accept the Talmud, Mishnah, and Gemara.  The Samaritans call themselves “Bnei Israel,” “the children of Israel.” According to the Talmud (tractate Kutim) Samaritans are to be treated as Jews when they practice the same customs as Jews, and as non-Jews when their practice differs.  Since the 19th century, the Samaritans have been considered a Jewish sect, and referred to as Samaritan Jews.   Today there remain two small communities of Samaritans, one in Holon and one on Mount Gerizim near Nablus.

Sesame Cookies recipe after the jump.
The custom of building sukkot indoors is a vestige of the persecution that the Samaritans endured under the Byzantines. In order to be able to preserve their traditions, they moved their sukkot indoors. They decorate their sukkot in a very exquisite way, with a ceiling that is a mosaic of fresh fruit. Guests who are lucky enough to experience this beauty are also treated to Samaritan hospitality: The Samaritans serve fragrant, savory cookies called Mekamar. They are a wonderful treat with hot mint tea.

Mekamar: Savory Sesame Cookies (Adapted from “The Wonders of the Israelite Samaritan Kitchen” by Benjamin Sedaka)

  • 7 cups of unbleached flour
  • 3 1/2 cups of semolina flour
  • 6 teaspoons baking powder
  • 3 1/4 cups vegetable oil
  • 1 1/2 cups toasted sesame seeds
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons ground allspice
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 2 tablespoons sea salt
  • 3 tablespoons ground fennel
  • 2 tablespoons ground turmeric
  • 1 3/4 cups water
  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
  2. Knead all the ingredients together in a bowl.  
  3. Pinch off walnut size pieces of dough.
  4. Roll each piece of dough into a ball, and then flatten onto a cookie sheet covered with parchment paper.
  5. Bake for approximately 20 minutes. Then, check to see if they are baked through, and bake for a few more minutes if necessary.

Easy Sesame-Date Rosh Hashanah Strudel

— by Ronit Treatman

Would you like to impress your family and friends with an exotic strudel for Rosh Hashanah, that’s also economical and easy to make? Known as a traditional Viennese pastry, apple strudel originated with Romanian and Hungarian Jews as a food for the Jewish New Year. This recipe is a unique Israeli fusion of Ashkenazi and Sephardic Rosh Hashanah customs.

Dates are one of the simanim, or symbolic foods, of the Sephardic Rosh Hashanah Seder. The word for date in Hebrew is תמר “tamar,” which contains the verb תם “tam” (to end). In the Sephardic Rosh Hashanah Seder, dates are eaten with the prayer (below the jump) that our enemies be consumed. For this strudel, flaky puff pastry is layered with creamy sesame paste, crunchy walnuts, and velvety date puree. You can bake it yourself in a few easy steps. All you need is frozen puff pastry, Medjool dates, raw sesame paste, and chopped nuts.

Prayers and Full recipe after the jump.
Sesame-Date Strudel

  • 1 package frozen puff pastry, thawed
  • 1 cup pitted Medjool dates  
  • 1 cup raw sesame paste
  • 1 cup chopped walnuts
  • 1 egg
  • Confectioner’s sugar for garnishing
  1. Preheat the oven to 400°F.
  2. Place a piece of parchment paper on a cookie sheet.
  3. Process the pitted dates in a blender, with a bit of boiling water, until they form a thick paste.
  4. Unfold the puff pastry onto the parchment paper.
  5. Spread 1 cup of raw sesame paste on the pastry.
  6. Spread 1 1/2 cups of date paste over the sesame paste.
  7. Sprinkle the chopped walnuts over the date paste.
  8. Fold the pastry over the filling.
  9. Pinch the edges shut.
  10. Beat the egg with one tablespoon of cold water.
  11. Brush the pastry with the egg wash.
  12. Bake for 25 minutes, or until the strudel is golden-brown.
  13. Sprinkle with confectioner’s sugar.

Prayers over dates

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’ אֱלֹהינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם בּוֹרֵא פְּרִי הָעֵץ
Blessed are You, Lord our G‑d, King of the universe, who creates the fruit of the tree.

יְהִי רָצוֹן מִלְּפָנֶיךָ ה’ אֱלֹהינוּ וֵאלֵֹהי אֲבוֹתֵינוּ, שֶׁיִּתַּמּוּ אוֹיְבֵינוּ וְשׂוֹנְאֵינוּ וְכָל מְבַקְשֵׁי רָעָתֵנוּ
May it be Your will, Lord our G‑d and the G‑d of our fathers, that there come an end to our enemies, haters and those who wish evil upon us.

Source: Chabad.