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The holiday where oil is the star

November 27, 2002|Claudia Roden | Special to The Times

WHEN Hanukkah begins Friday night, all around the world Jews will be preparing dishes that represent the holiday perfectly. The Ashkenazim will be frying potato latkes. In Israel they'll be making sufganiyot, the little jam-filled doughnuts. Italian Jews will deep-fry pieces of chicken dipped in batter. The Sephardim will eat fritters in syrup, which are variously called zalabia, bimwellos, loukoumades, sfenj or yoyos.

It's all about the oil, of course.

Each dish is a way of commemorating the miracle of the oil that was enough to burn only for one day but instead burned for eight as the Jews set about restoring the temple at Jerusalem in a time of war more than 2,000 years ago.

In Egypt, where I grew up, it was the zalabia that reigned at Hanukkah, and the fritters soaked in a sweet, perfumed syrup are still close to my heart, because they are a reminder of my parents, my brothers and grandparents, my cousins, uncles and aunts and of our home in Cairo. We could buy zalabia from street vendors year-round, but at Hanukkah they took on a symbolic significance and Awad, our cook, made masses of them, enough to serve all the visitors who called to celebrate.

Over the years I've learned to make and to love all of those other fried holiday dishes too. This is all simple food, representing very old traditions, not the gourmet creations of chefs who add trimmings for the sake of originality. And I think these dishes are all the more delicious for it.

The simplest, of course, is the potato latke, the golden pancake made with just eggs and grated potatoes squeezed dry of their starchy juices. They should be made just before eating, so they are crisp on the outside and soft inside. Many versions add ingredients such as onion and garlic, but I prefer the original basic dish, with the pure taste of potato.

Likewise, the pollo fritto, the Tuscan dish of tender, juicy chicken, pieces is sharpened with a simple lemon marinade and then rolled in flour and beaten egg. The scrumptious apple latkes, made with fruit macerated in brandy, are dipped in an ever so light batter.

And of course, there are the zalabia.

Some years ago, I was experimenting with the zalabia recipe in London when my grandson, then 7, happened to call. The following day Cesar came home from school with a drawing representing me, very tiny in the middle of a huge page, surrounded by bowls filled with little balls -- on the kitchen table, on the dresser, on the floor, everywhere. I had made so many batches while trying out different proportions of flour and water in order to get them to come out perfectly round, which they never did.

And really, the shape didn't matter. They were incredibly light and puffy, and gorged in aromatic syrup. They were, in the end, another miracle, the culinary triumph of hot oil.

*

Chicken pieces fried in batter (pollo fritto)

Total time: 20 minutes, plus 1 hour standing

Servings: 2-4

1 boneless, skinless chicken breast, about 1/2 pound

Juice of 1 lemon

Salt, pepper

Flour

1 egg, lightly beaten

Canola oil, for frying

1. Cut the chicken into 2-inch pieces. Marinate for 1 hour in the lemon juice and a little salt and pepper. Roll the pieces in flour, then in the beaten egg (prepare a soup plate of each, and the chicken pieces can all be in at the same time).

2. Heat 1 inch of oil in a heavy pot to 350 degrees. Deep-fry the chicken until golden, about 3 minutes. If the oil is too hot, the batter will burn before the chicken is done. If you want to make a large quantity, you may reheat the chicken in the oven.

Each of 4 servings: 262 calories; 131 mg. sodium; 100 mg. cholesterol; 17 grams fat; 2 grams saturated fat; 6 grams carbohydrates; 20 grams protein; 0.24 gram fiber.

Variation: The Tunisian "Livornese" version -- poulet en beignets -- is a chicken cut in small pieces marinated 1 hour in a mixture of 3 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil, the juice of 1 lemon, 2 crushed garlic cloves, 3 tablespoons finely chopped Italian parsley, salt and pepper, then dipped in a batter made with 1/3 cup flour beaten with 1 egg and a little water -- just enough to obtain a light cream -- plus salt and pepper. Deep-fry about 3 minutes in oil heated to 350 degrees, and serve with lemon quarters.

*

Apple latkes

Total time: 40 minutes, plus 1 hour standing

Servings: 4

Note: This is a specialty of Hanukkah. Of several fritters that I have tried, this one is the most scrumptious, because the apples are macerated in brandy, which gives them a most wonderful flavor, and the batter is very light. You can also use beer or milk instead of water for the batter.

4 tart or sweet apples

2-3 tablespoons sugar

3 tablespoons brandy, dark rum or fruit liqueur

2 eggs, separated

2 tablespoons canola oil

A good pinch of salt

1 cup flour

1/2 cup water

Vegetable oil for frying, preferably sunflower

Superfine sugar, for sprinkling

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