You know the basic Sunday School version: the oil in the besieged Temple lasted eight days instead of one, and now we eat things fried in oil. But how did sufganiyot take off in Israel, while the latke commands the American Hanukkah market? And why sufganiyot, anyway? Why not fried chicken or mozzarella sticks or deep-fried Twinkies?
Let’s not sugarcoat it: the classic, jelly-filled Hanukkah doughnut known as the sufganiyah wasn’t handed down to Moses at Sinai. The reason we go soft for these gooey treats is the result of a long history, and a little politics.
In the Ancient World
The root of sufganiyot is sphog, an ancient word for “sponge,” carried over to Greek as sponga and to Arabic as iisfanaj.
Middle East, c. 200
Sufgan appears in the third-century compilation of the Mishnah (Oral Torah), in the discussion of what constitutes challah. Sufganin were some kind of spongy cake. Maybe sufganiyot were handed down at Sinai after all?
Spain, c. 1100
Rabbi Maimon ben Yosef (Maimonides’s father, c. 1100 in Muslim Spain), wrote that on Hanukkah “it has become customary to make sufganin, known in Arabic as alsfingh…this is an ancient custom, because they are fried in oil, in remembrance of [God’s] blessing.”
France, c. 1100–1200
The Tosafot, the 12th–13th-century commentary on the Talmud composed in France and Rhineland, explains the word sufgan as a dough “fried in oil and called (in French) boynes.” In medieval French, doughnut = buignez. Buignez likely led to modern beignet.
Provence, c. 1300
In the early 1300s, the philosopher and translator Kalonymus ben Kalonymus wrote about Hanukkah: “[The women] bake the dough and make different kinds of tasty food from the mixture…and above all they should take fine wheat flour and make sufganin and isqaritin [wafers] from it.”
Germany, c. 1500
The jelly doughnut as we know it can be traced to 15th-century Germany. The first known recipe for a gefüllte krapfen (a stuffed fritter) appears in the German cookbook Kuchenmeisterei, and involves putting jam between two rounds of yeast dough and frying it in lard.
Once the price of sugar dropped in the 16th century, this sweet treat made its way around Europe as krapfen (Austria), Berliners (Germany), pączki (Poland), and ponchiki or pyshki (Russia). Yiddish-speaking Jews called them ponchkes. Whatever happened to ponchkes?
Polish Jews brought the custom of eating ponchkes on Hanukkah to Israel, where they took on their new, Hebraized name, sufganiyot, based on the ancient spongy cake called sufgan. But how did it become the iconic Israeli Hanukkah treat? For that, we can thank the pre-state labor group, the Histadrut, which sought to build employment in the winter when jobs lagged. By promoting sufganiyot, which are hard to make at home, as a symbol of Hanukkah, the Histadrut could create more jobs.
Italy and Sicily
In medieval Italy, Jews were dipping raisin-stuffed frittelle in honey on Hanukkah. In southern Italy and Sicily, zeppole di San Giuseppe are a popular sweet fried dough for the festival of St. Joseph. Zeppole comes from zalabiyya, which is another way to say “sponge” in Arabic. Today, zeppole are also called sfinji — linking back to the word sufgan.
Today Israelis eat more than 18 million sufganiyot around Hanukkah — that’s around 2.25 doughnuts per citizen — and the IDF buys more than 50,000 doughnuts each day of Hanukkah to boost morale. Put that in your ponchke and eat it!