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History of : Sufganiyot

These fried dough treats (or a form of them) have been enjoyed for Hanukkah since before the 12th century. Find out a little more about their origin story here and why they are eaten to celebrate Hanukkah, the festival of lights.

The destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem (Franceso Hayez 1867)

A little Hanukkah history

In the second century BCE, the Second Temple in Judea was looted in a move by King Antiochus who was persecuting Jewish life widely, forcing Jews instead to worship Greek gods. Judah Maccabee led his followers (the Maccabees) in a revolt against this oppression which was successful, with King Antiochus being chased out of Judea after two years of warfare. The Temple was then re-dedicated to the Jewish faith, after it had been largely ransacked by Antiochus and his men. One part of this re-dedication was lighting the Menorah, there was only enough oil left to burn for one day, but surprisingly the oil burned for eight days.

It is the miracle of the oil lasting for eight days which is at the centre of the Hanukkah celebration and has influenced the types of food eaten, with many fried goods being seen on the table

Humble beginnings

It is thought that Sufganiyot originated as sweet syrup coated fried cakes, a little like zalabiya which are still eaten in the modern Arabic world today. Eating this sort of deep fried pastry was considered old practice - even in the 12th century. It was written by a Rabbi in this period that :

"one must not make light of the custom of eating sofganim [fried fritters] on Chanukah. It is a custom of the Kadmonim [the ancient ones]"

In fact, the etymology of "Sufganiyot" may also give us some clues as to the original form of these treats. The Greek word sufan, means spongy or fried and similarly a Mahgrebi donut called a sfenj comes from this same root.

There is also an Israeli folklore which says that the etymology of Sufganiyot comes from the Hebrew "Sof Gan Yud-Heh" ("סוף גן יה"), meaning "the end of the Garden of the Lord". It is said that when Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden, God cheered them up by giving them jam-filled doughnuts (although there is no basis for this within any official scriptures).

While fried treats such as sfenj and zalabiya may have provided inspiration for the original Sufganiyot there is once crucial present day ingredient missing - the jam filling!

Transition to Donuts

Sufganiyot for sale at a stall in the Mahane Yehuda Market

It is thought that modern day Sufganiyot came from the German "Berliner" doughnut, with varieties available in almost all parts of the world, for instance berliininmunkki in Finland, ponchiks in Poland and bolas de Berlim in Portugal.

The original doughnut filled with jam recipe comes from a 1485 cookbook published in Nuremberg. Prior to this, doughnuts tended to have savoury fillings like fish, meat and mushrooms, as sugar was very expensive during this time. As sugar prices fell around the 16th century with the introduction of Caribbean sugar plantations, sweet doughnuts became more popular and widespread.

It is thought that this type of doughnut was brought to Israel by Polish and German jews who were fleeing European anti-semitism in the early 20th century.These new traditions were mixed in with the consumption of sfenj which had been brought by Mahgrebi Jews around the same time.

However, in the late 1920s the Israeli Histradut (Israel's national Labour Union) pushed forward Sufganiyot as the national food of Hanukkah. This was because Latkes (another typical Hanukkah food) were considered easy to make at home and the Histradut wanted to provide economic opportunities for Jewish workers. Sufganiyot were more difficult to make and transport, and could only be done by professional bakers: Thus, jobs were secured for Jewish bakers.

In the early days making sufganiyot was very labour intensive, but now the making is largely automated. That's just as well, because in present day Israel, more than 18 million sufganiyot are eaten during the Hanukkah period.

Classic flavours like strawberry are most popular, but there are many different types and varieties of nowadays. Another well-loved flavour is caramel (ribat chalav) which was brought by Argentinian jewish immigrants in the 1980s.

The melting pot of jewish culture and tradition from many places in the world is reflected in the creation of modern day Sufganiyot. With history stretching back to ~500BCE with the original Hanukkah story and the miracle of the cruse oil, to recent immigration of Jews to Israel from many different cultures, all bundled up in one delicious fried treat.


Sources and further reading


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