When it comes to Hanukkah, fried foods are the norm, and the Sephardic “isfen” is no exception, packed with as much history as crunch.
Hanukkah, which means “dedication” in Hebrew, commemorates the Maccabean revolt that led to Jerusalem’s historical recovery from the Greek empire and the rededication of the menorah in the Second Temple around 168 BCE. Religious texts later extrapolated on the event in Shabbat 21b of the Talmud, writing of the eight-day oil miracle. Since then, oil and fried foods have been inextricably linked to the holiday.
Beyond the traditional latkes (grated potatoes mixed with onions, egg, and fried into crunchy pancakes) and sufganiyot (doughnuts stuffed with a piping bag full of jam) that are as essential to celebrating Hanukkah as candles for the hanukkiah – there’s more to explore in the Jewish “Festival of Lights” culinary canon. the nine-branched menorah used solely for the holiday. This year, travel back in time to 13th century al-Andalus (modern-day Andalusia, Spain), when Jews and Muslims both drank isfen.
A big fried doughnut with bubbles everywhere
When it comes to Hanukkah, fried foods are the norm, and isfen is no exception among Sephardim, the Jewish diaspora with roots in Spain prior to the Inquisition. Sufganiyot’s simplified culinary cousins are isfen. There’s no need for a piping bag; just stretch golf ball-sized pieces of dough into rings and dip in frying oil for about a minute on each side. That’s all. When you bite into it, the crispy thin crust gives the doughnut the flavour of fried toast, followed by a hint of sweetness.
Hélène Jawhara Pier is a Sephardic cookbook author with a PhD in mediaeval history and food history who has been recognised and awarded by several organisations, most recently the Society for Crypto-Judaic Studies. for her involvement in Sephardic history research. She grew up in France, surrounded by French relatives, but with Andalusian ancestors thanks to her father. Jews, Food, and Spain, her second book on Sephardic culinary heritage, was published in November. Simply put, she is the go-to person for chefs working with Sephardic cuisine, such as Zahav’s Michael Solomonov.
“Isfen is like a big fried doughnut with bubbles all over it,” she explained. “It has a crispy exterior and an airy interior.”
In her new book, Pier claims that references to isfen can be found in the 13th-century Kitb al-ab, the Iberian Peninsula’s oldest cookbook. However, those recipes do not appear to be identical to today’s isfen – for one thing, there was no hole in the centre.
Isfenǧ (with a hole) makes its second appearance in the 13th-Century Spanish-Arabic cookbook, the Fuḍālat al-ẖiwān, with a recipe that can be translated as “Confection of Doughnuts”.
“This preparation is made from semolina dissolved in hot water with salt and yeast,” writes Pier. “They must be fried and browned on the bottom while remaining white on the top. They can be cooked twice to get a lighter [texture].”
Despite its origins in Moorish Spain, isfen has travelled with the diaspora and now shares its culinary heritage with Northern Africa and the Middle East.
Following the conquest of Granada in 1492, Queen Isabella of Spain expelled Jews and Muslims from al-Andalus. The majority fled to modern-day Morocco in North Africa, bringing their isfen with them. Similar variants can be found in Libya (sfinz) and Tunisia (bambaloni).
Following local pogroms and the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, the pastry travelled once more. Between 1948 and 2016, approximately 274,180 Jews emigrated from Morocco. Today, an estimated 472,800 Moroccan Jews live in Israel, and the etymology of isfen tells the story of its journey from the Iberian Peninsula to North Africa and Israel.
According to Pier, sfen is also known as “esponja” or “sponge” in Spanish, a word derived from the Arabic “sjen” with the same meaning. In Hebrew, a similar linguistic root exists. A round doughnut is referred to as a “sfog” in Hebrew. Ladino, Judeo-Spanish spoken by Spanish Jews or Sephardim, combined Castilian and Arabic and was known as “spona.” Despite the fact that Morocco’s Jewish population has declined significantly, with some estimates putting it at around 3,000, local street vendors continue to sell the pastry. Moroccan Jews in the diaspora and in Israel eat isfen for Hanukkah in the same way that any Ashkenazi Jew eats latkes. It’s a year-round street food for Moroccan Muslims.
“Isfen testify to a shared culinary heritage shared by Jews and Muslims,” Pier said. “In both the past and the present.”
Make your own isfenǧ this Hanukkah
Pier published Sephardi: Cooking the History in 2021, which includes recipes from the Jews of Spain and the diaspora dating back to the 13th century. Pier includes this isfen recipe in it, which he created using a variety of sources, including the aforementioned Kitb al-ab. Although she did not grow up with isfen, it has since become a Hanukkah tradition for her. “During Hanukkah, I make isfen every other day,” she explained.
Pier recommends making the dough ahead of time and storing it in the fridge overnight to make your own isfen. It takes some practise to get used to handling it, making the hole in the centre, and frying it because the texture should be sticky.
To add a touch of sweetness, Piñer suggests sprinkling them with a bit of sugar and lightly dipping them in honey.
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