Hanukkah starts next week, bringing with it the heavy (and heavenly) smell of fried potatoes in kitchens everywhere. When you think food for a menorah lighting, you probably think of latkes, which is fine. But there are other Hanukkah classics that don’t get nearly the love that potato pancakes do. Specifically, sufganiyot—jelly doughnuts. For those who haven’t yet gotten to enjoy a Hanukkah doughnut, or for those who have and had no idea why, here are a few things you didn’t know about how they got to be a holiday tradition.
1. They're oily, and that's a good thing.
There is a focus on foods fried in oil during Hanukkah to commemorate the miracle of oil burning for eight days in the biblical account of the Maccabees.
2. Jelly has a biblical history, too.
One of the best-known rabbis of the 20th century, Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, said the reason we don’t eat plain old glazed doughnuts is because, according to the Hanukkah story, after the Jewish temple was destroyed, “the taste of fruits was never the same.” So doughnuts are filled with fruit as a rememberance.
3. Jelly doughnuts are incredibly old.
The first recipe appeared in a German cookbook from 1485—Kuchenmeisterei (Mastery of the Kitchen).
4. But they probably didn’t originate in Europe.
Potatoes were the main crop in places like Poland and Russia, hence the popularity of latkes. But for Jews in North Africa and the Middle East, wheat was the main crop. So they've been frying dough instead since the Middle Ages.
5. Jelly doughnuts were a make-work program in the 20th century.
According to the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, the Israeli labor federation pushed jelly doughnuts as Hanukkah food in the 1920s because they were much harder to make than latkes. This meant fewer people made them at home, creating jobs for those who made and shipped doughnuts.
6. They are the Hanukkah food in Israel.
In a survey last year, 80 percent of Israelis said they ate jelly doughnuts during the holiday.
7. They make tons of them there. Literally tons.
Angel Bakery, the largest bakery in Israel, reportedly makes 250,000 sufganiyot every day during Hanukkah.