It’s a week before my trip to Jerusalem and my inbox is filling up with bakery suggestions. Debates are breaking out on the Facebook group where I asked for opinions. Forget about Middle Eastern politics for a moment.
Everyone has convictions about where to go for the best sufganiyot, an Israeli fried doughnut-like treat that is only available for a brief time during the celebration of Hanukkah.
I’ve always wanted to see the Festival of Lights in its birthplace. I couldn’t wait to shop for dreidels inscribed with the Hebrew letters; nun, gimmel, hay, peh. All my life my dreidels have read nun, gimmel, hay, shin. This is shorthand for “Nes gadol hayah sham” or, “A great miracle happened there.” In Israel the dreidels say “Nes gadol hayah po.”A great miracle happened HERE.
Playing with dreidels gives us an excuse to tell the holiday story to our children.
Hanukkah is not a particularly religious holiday, despite the common American belief that it is a holy time for Jews. The holiday commemorates and celebrates a military victory. In particular, it celebrates the miraculous legend associated with the aftermath of that victory. In the legend, a single day’s worth of lamp oil somehow lasted for a week. From this, comes the tradition of lighting the menorah, and eating foods fried in oil.
But not just any food…
In America, the fried food of choice is a latka (aka potato pancake) – a very classic Eastern European staple. Latkes are to Hanukkah what turkey is to Thanksgiving. You can’t celebrate without! I can still recall my grandmother hand grating the potatoes and onions. Hanukkah was the whole reason we owned an electric frying pan. The pan would be unearthed from the bottom cabinet annually, special for the occasion. The oniony smell of frying would linger on in the house for at least 8 days and nights.
Latkes, while delicious, are hardly sexy. In Israel they do things differently. Forget about the homely potato pancake. Latkes can stay in the shtetl. Life is sweeter now, and sufganiyot are the required holiday food in Israel.
Sufganiyot are not the same treat as what you would call a donut in the USA. Most people associate donuts with the baked, bagel shaped, glazed treats you get at Dunkin Donuts. These heavy cakes are nothing like Sufganiyot.
Israeli sufganiyot are made from a sweet yeasted dough that is fried, producing light, hollow treats. They are traditionally filled with either chocolate or jelly fillings. In their purest, simplest form you will find them unfrosted, with a powdered or granulated sugar coating.
In the past decade Jerusalem has become a hub for foodies. Many boutique bakeries have sprung up. It was only a matter of time until the donut wars began.
Roladin, located in Mamilla Mall, was the first well known bakery to run with the ball. They print up special menus with their custom creations, and these can also be viewed on their website. The classics are there but so are exotic boutique flavors that include liqueur infused fillings and surprising flavors like violet. They don’t come cheap, with specialty choices costing between three and four dollars each. No risk of soggy sufganiyot here. Roladin’s specialty treats are sold topped with fillings safely waiting inside decorative plastic bulbs. This allows customers to administer the all important, last-minute flavor injections.
Over in the city center, customers gather at Neeman, on the corner of King George and Jaffa. Neeman displays a variety of flavors including, shockingly, some that look a bit more like American donuts, with the hole.
Up a the hill a bit on King George Street, Gagou de Paris seems more proper and restrained. Most of their choices look like the classics with some sprinkles for decor. The line out the door suggest they taste wonderful.
English Cake, at the top of Ben Yehuda’s pedestrian thoroughfare, has a full menu of festive flavors, much like Roladin, but a little less fancy and formal in spirit, Some of the choices are very colorful, with poppy red Sufganiyot stealing the show. They remind me of a fun bohemian auntie, with bright red lipstick. She might drink a little too much, but it isn’t quite a party till she gets there.
Sufganiyot are simply everywhere during the week of Hanukkah, including displays at local restaurants.
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Of course there are plenty of Sufganiyot for sale throughout Machane Yehuda market, which is the gurgling gut of foodie Jerusalem.
Here in the heart of the market, you can find Pinterest and Instagram-worthy technicolor American style donuts at Mr Donuts, a donut-dedicated food stand. The chain’s colorful confections seem perfect for children and adults who like to celebrate Hanukkah in magical unicorn fashion. They are very fun, if not traditional sufganiyot.
Around the corner, at the Marzipan Bakery on Agrippas Street there is a streetfront, tabletop sweep of Sufganiyot that stops passerby in their tracks. The stray bees that usually haunt the bakery’s famous ruggelach pastries, buzz curiously around the holiday treats.
I stop a shopper, and ask him for a photo.
“Do you know what these are?” he asks me.
“Yes I do,” I nod and assure him.
He looks crestfallen and I immediately regret my reply. I’ve robbed us both of the story he was about to tell me. Never step on stories offered up in Jerusalem!
For me, it is both a blessing and a curse to be in Israel for Hanukkah. It’s a blessing because it’s such a delight to observe how this holiday is celebrated here. It’s a curse because as a gluten free eater, I cannot participate in the most delicious parts. I’m also traveling alone. I cannot pull off my usual trick of pawning off delectable gluten-filled treats on volunteer eaters (aka my kids). By the second night of the holiday I begin to miss my family immensely.
What good are all these gorgeous sufganiyot without anyone to share them with!? Suddenly I can’t wait to get home, and enjoy some latkes with my family.
My final stop on the Jerusalem Sufganiyot circuit is at Kadosh, just a couple of blocks off of Jaffa street. This famous bakery doesn’t have the flashiest donuts but they are reported to be the best tasting. My friend who “hates donuts” takes a bite of the cassis filled classic and swoons.
“This is the best donut I’ve ever eaten,” she insists.
“It’s not really a donut,” I point out, “It’s a miracle.”