FOR 12 MILLION of the world's 15 million Jews, the arrival of Hanukah this Friday night is likely to be celebrated with stacks of well-seasoned potato latkes (pancakes) flipped off the griddle and served with generous dollops of applesauce and sour cream. These Jews are the Ashkenazim, of Eastern European origin.

But for the remaining 3 million Jews, Sephardim who trace their ancestry to the Iberian peninsula, latke is a foreign word. Sephardic Jews don't speak Yiddish, but a language called Ladino--derived from medieval Spanish, Hebrew and a variety of local tongues. Instead of latkes, they celebrate Hanukah with a wide range of fried foods with names like atayif, birmuelos, sambusak and lokoumades.

Why are the Hanukah foods of 3 million Jews more varied than those of 12 million?

The majority of Eastern European Jews remained in their homelands until around the turn of the century, when many of them immigrated to the United States and South America. On the other hand, Sephardic Jews were forced to flee the Spanish Inquisition as early as the 13th century. Those Jews from northern Spain and Portugal headed primarily for the Ottoman Empire, while those from the south resettled in North Africa.

Centuries later, Sephardic Jewish communities in America reflect the dispersal. For example, in Congregation Shearith Israel, the Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue in Manhattan, the 550-family group includes members of Algerian, Moroccan, Tunisian, Turkish, Greek and Persian ancestry.

When they came to this country, the Sephardic Jews naturally brought their cooking traditions with them. So, for example, when Gilda Schuchalter, an Ashkenazic Jew, married Marc Angel, who is Sephardic, the lids were lifted off her mother-in-law's cooking pots to release entirely new aromas of Jewish cooking. Already an enthusiastic cook, she learned a whole new repertoire of Greek and Turkish Jewish dishes from her husband's mother.

A few years later, when Marc Angel became the rabbi of the Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue, the doors of Sephardic kitchens representing a dozen different lands opened to Gilda Angel. Before long, she was making taramasalata, cooking with bulgur wheat and baking with rosewater and pine nuts. She was frying in olive oil instead of chicken fat.

In the Angel household nowadays, the cooking is eclectic--one night a Sephardic dish, another night an Ashkenazic one. "We always have potato latkes at least one night of Hanukah," Gilda Angel said in an interview, "because I love them."

But Marc Angel can't let Hanukah come and go without preparing the yeasty, deep-fried puffs known in Turkish as birmuelos (clearly derived from the Spanish fried dough called bunuelos). "I grew up on them," he said, "and they're my specialty."

Fried foods have long been associated with the celebration of Hanukah because a central symbol of the holiday is oil. Known as the Festival of Light, Hanukah commemoratesthe ancient victory of the Kingdom of Judah over the Kingdom of Syria and the subsequent freedom given the Jewish people to worship in their Temple in Jerusalem once again.

When the Jews re-entered the Temple, they found only enough oil to keep their Perpetual Light burning for one night. Miraculously, the light burned for eight nights, allowing sufficient time to replenish the oil supply and to restore the Temple.

While Ashkenazic Jews light a candle to symbolize each of the eight nights of Hanukah, Sephardim burn oil in the eight shallow wells of a hanukkiah designed for this holiday.

Hanukah dinner in the Angel household this Friday night will reflect the fact that Rabbi Angel's mother is from Turkey and his father from Greece. The meal will begin with taramasalata and little phyllo-wrapped meat pasties called pastilicos de carne. Arroz con pollo (rice and chicken) will follow with a side dish of turshi melitzanes, or eggplant pickles. For dessert there will be fresh fruit, and then coffee with birmuelos and little sesame candies called mogados de susam.

The recipes for these dishes and 200 others will be available early next year, when Gilda Angel's cookbook, "Sephardic Holiday Cooking," is published. (It may be ordered for $20.95 postpaid from Decalogue Books, 7 North MacQuestan Parkway, Mount Vernon, N.Y. 10550.) Meanwhile, here are some fried-in-oil Hanukah favorites of Sephardic Jews adapted from her collection. The sambusak make nice appetizers or light luncheon entrees; the atayif and birmuelos are for snacks or dessert. SAMBUSAK b'TAWAH (Iraqi Chicken or Meat Turnovers) (Makes about 3 dozen) For the filling: 10 1/2-ounce can of garbanzos (chick peas) 2 tablespoons light vegetable oil 1 cup finely minced onion 1 small green pepper, seeded and finely minced Generous 1/4 teaspoon curry powder 1/4 teaspoon salt 1/8 teaspoon freshly ground pepper 1 cup cooked, minced chicken or 1/2 pound ground beef 1 egg, lightly beaten For the dough: 4 cups unbleached flour 1 teaspoon salt 1/3 cup vegetable oil Additional oil for frying

Drain the garbanzos, reserving the liquid. Pass them through the coarse grater of a food mill or spin them briefly in the food processor to make a coarse mash. Set aside.

Heat the oil in a large skillet. Saute' the onion and green pepper until the onions are soft, about 3 minutes. Add the seasonings and cooked chicken or ground beef and continue cooking for an additional 3 minutes. (If using beef, cook until the meat is thoroughly browned.) Stir in the garbanzos and the egg. Cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture is dry. Adjust seasoning and set aside.

Prepare the dough by combining the flour and salt. Stir in the vegetable oil and the reserved garbanzo liquid, after adding enough water to make a total of 1 cup of liquid. Knead until the dough is smooth, with a shiny surface, about 10 minutes.

Pinch off balls of dough (or slice off pieces with a serrated knife) about the size of walnuts and roll them out to thin circles with 4-inch diameters. The dough will be quite elastic. Place a rounded teaspoonful of the filling in the center of each circle and fold the circle in half, pinching the edges together. Then press the edges together firmly with the tines of a fork. Repeat until all of the dough and filling are used.

Pour oil into a heavy skillet to a depth of 1/2 inch. Heat oil to 375 degrees. Fry the sambusaks, several at a time, until both sides are golden. Drain on paper towels. Reheat, if necessary, in a 350-degree oven. ATAYIF (Syrian Filled Pancakes) (Makes about 2 dozen)

Orange-flower water is available at Middle Eastern and Indian groceries, but don't be discouraged from making atayif if you don't have any.The pancakes are delicious plain, too, especially warm. For the syrup: 1 cup sugar 1/2 cup water 1 tablespoon lemon juice 1/2 teaspoon orange-flower water For the filling: 2/3 cup finely chopped walnuts 2 tablespoons sugar 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon 2 teaspoons water For the pancakes: 1 1/4 cups unbleached flour 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder 1/4 teaspoon salt 1 tablespoon sugar 1 egg, lightly beaten 2 tablespoons vegetable oil 1 to 1 1/4 cups water Additional oil for deep frying

To prepare the syrup, combine the sugar, 1/2 cup water and lemon juice in a heavy saucepan. Boil over medium heat for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and stir in orange-flower water. Set aside to cool.

Prepare the filling by combining the walnuts, sugar, cinnamon and 2 teaspoons water. Set aside.

Prepare the pancake batter by combining the flour, baking powder, salt and sugar. Stir in the egg and vegetable oil and approximately 1 to 1 1/4 cups water to make a medium-thin batter.

Lightly grease a griddle and drop single tablespoonsful of batter on the griddle to make thin 3-inch pancakes. When bubbles begin to appear on the surface, remove pancakes to a plate, setting them down with uncooked side up. After each batch of pancakes is done, place a scant teaspoon of filling in the center and fold the pancake in half, pressing the edges together firmly while the pancake is still warm. Repeat until all the batter is used.

In a heavy saucepan, heat 3 inches of oil to 375 degrees. Drop in atayif, several at a time, and fry for 2 to 3 minutes, or until a rich golden color on both sides. Remove with a slotted spoon and set on paper towel to drain. Serve warm with or without syrup drizzled on top. BIRMUELOS (Turkish Deep-fried Puffs) (Makes about 3 dozen)

The secret to making good birmuelos is making sure their centers are cooked. To this end, be sure to make them small and deep-fry them until they are deep gold. 2 packages active dry yeast 2 tablespoons sugar 3 cups warm water (115 degrees) 1 teaspoon salt 2 tablespoons vegetable oil 6 1/2 cups unbleached flour Additional oil for deep frying Confectioners' sugar or honey for topping

In a large bowl, combine the yeast and sugar with warm water. Let stand 5 to 10 minutes, until a layer of foam forms on the surface.

Stir in the salt, oil and flour to make a smooth, sticky dough. Cover the bowl and let the dough rise in a warm, draft-free place until doubled in bulk, about 1 hour. Beat the dough down by stirring vigorously with a wooden spoon. Dough will be moist and sticky. Cover and let rise again, this time for 1/2 hour.

In a heavy saucepan heat 4 inches of oil to 375 degrees.

As the dough will be sticky and somewhat difficult to handle, dip two tablespoons in the oil. Lift a small bit of dough, about the size of a walnut, in one spoon and shape it into something that resembles a ball with the other spoon. Push the dough off the spoon into the hot oil. Fry 3 to 4 balls of dough at a time, dipping the spoons into the oil each time before you reach for more uncooked dough. Turn the birmuelos in the hot oil until they are a deep golden all around. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Serve at once, sprinkled with confectioners' sugar or honey.