Sheldon Miller, a devout Jew and retired U.S. Public Health Service captain, remembers his first Sephardic Hanukah with amusement. "I was stationed in Athens and I had acquired a number of social obligations among the members of the local Sephardic community," says Miller, who lives in Silver Spring. "I decided to oblige them with a traditional Ashkenazi-style Hanukah party, featuring latkes."

"My houseboy was up at dawn peeling potatoes," recalls Miller. "I had carefully instructed my cook how to grate the onions and potatoes and how to fry them in oil to make latkes. After the ritual lighting of the candles, the moment arrived. My staff arrived with heaping platters of potato pancakes, with applesauce and sour cream. My guests looked puzzled. They ate the kourabiedes {half-moon shaped butter cookies}. They gobbled up the galakto boureko {phyllo custard cake}. But no one touched the latkes."

Miller learned that night that Jewish customs are not universal. His Hanukah party demonstrated the striking differences between the Ashkenazim (the Jews of Eastern Europe and their descendants) and the Sephardim (the Jews of northern Africa and the Near East). Miller was to learn a great deal more about Sephardic food in the future, for he soon married Rosa Modiano, a Sephardic Jew from Salonika in northern Greece.

The dispersal of the Jewish people around the Mediterranean and Europe began with the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 A.D. In the following centuries, many of the exiles made their way to Germany, Poland and Russia. This group became known as the Ashkenazim. The other group spread out around the Near East, northern Africa and the Iberian peninsula; these were the Sephardim.

In 1492, the Jews were forced out of Spain by the Inquisition. Many Spanish Jews fled to Greece, where they were welcomed by the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid II. Other Spanish Jews publicly converted to Christianity, but continued to practice Judaism in secret. The latter were known as Marranos, and they were the ancestors of Miller's wife, Rosa. Eventually banished from Spain, they fled to Portugal, then Livorno, Italy, and finally Salonika in northern Greece.

Greek Sephardic cuisine is a distinctive blend of Spanish, Moorish, Greek and Turkish cooking. The cooking fat of choice is olive oil -- even in pastries. Desserts are often soaked in honey or sugar syrup, as has been done for centuries in Turkey and Greece. Few Jews in America have ever heard of pastel (cheese pie), poyo con kiftikas y palikos de espinaka (chicken with spinach stems and spinach fritters), or zvingous (pastry puffs with syrup and cinnamon). But mention these dishes to Sephardic Jews, like Rosa or her mother, Lili, and their eyes will light with pleasure.

Latkes, the most familiar Hanukah food in this country, were unknown to Sephardic Jews of Greece. But they certainly ate other fried foods during Hanukah. According to Nicholas Stavroulakis, author of the "Cookbook of the Jews of Greece" (Lycabettus Press, 1986), one such dish was tiganites, pancakes made with whole-wheat flour and ouzo, sprinkled with walnuts and honey. (Tigani is the Greek word for frying pan.)

Following is a typical Sephardic Hanukah meal. It's a long way from latkes, indeed.

PASTEL (Feta Cheese Pastry) (8 servings)


1/2 cup olive oil

1 cup water

1/3 teaspoon salt

1 3/4 to 2 cups flour


1/2 pound feta cheese

1/2 cup ricotta cheese

4 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature

1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan

3 eggs, beaten, plus 1 egg beaten for glaze

Freshly ground black pepper

Prepare the dough. Combine the olive oil, water and salt in a heavy saucepan and bring to a boil. Sift in 1 1/2 cups flour off the heat. Stir in the flour and return the pan to the heat.

Cook the dough over high heat, stirring steadily, for 1 minute, or until it comes away from the sides of the pan in a smooth ball. Add flour as necessary: The dough should be firm enough to roll. Let cool for 10 minutes, then lightly knead the dough on a thickly floured work surface.

Prepare the filling. Crumble or grate the feta cheese. Cream the ricotta cheese and cream cheese. Beat in feta cheese and Parmesan, followed by the 3 eggs and pepper.

Roll out half the dough and use it to line a lightly oiled, 9-inch pie dish. Spoon in the filling and moisten the top edge of the crust with water. Roll out the remaining dough and place it on top, crimping the edges with a fork. Brush the top of the pastel with the remaining beaten egg.

Bake the pastel for 1 hour at 375 degrees or until lightly browned and crisp. Let it cool slightly, then cut into wedges and serve.

Per serving: 440 calories, 15 gm protein, 23 gm carbohydrates, 31 gm fat, 13 gm saturated fat, 191 mg cholesterol, 615 mg sodium.

POYO CON KIFTIKAS Y PALIKOS DE ESPINAKA (Chicken with Spinach Stems and Spinach Fritters) (4 servings)

Approximately 1 cup olive oil

4-pound chicken, cut into serving pieces

Salt, to taste

3 lemons or to taste

2 1/2 pounds fresh spinach, preferably loose with long stems

2 eggs

1/2 teaspoon sugar

Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large saute' pan over medium heat. Sprinkle chicken pieces with salt and lightly brown on all sides. Pour off fat.

Add 1 cup water and the juice of 1 lemon. Cover the pan and gently simmer the chicken for 1 hour, or until easily pierced with a fork.

Meanwhile, wash the spinach. Remove the stems and add them to the chicken. Boil the leaves in a large pot with 1/2-inch water for 4 to 5 minutes, or until limp. Drain the spinach leaves in a colander, rinse with cold water, then wring it between your fingers to extract as much liquid as possible.

Pure'e the spinach in a food processor. Add the eggs, salt and the juice of 1/2 lemon, or to taste. Heat 1/2 cup olive oil over medium heat in a frying pan.

Using your hands, mold spinach mixture into 2-inch patties. Fry patties for 8 minutes per side, or until lightly crusted. Blot patties on paper towels. Add leftover oil to the chicken.

When chicken is cooked, arrange pieces in center of an oven-proof serving dish. Arrange fritters around chicken (can be prepared ahead to this stage and reheated just before serving).

Bring sauce and stems to a boil and cook until a generous cup liquid remains. Add sugar, salt and lemon juice to taste. Sauce should be highly seasoned. Spoon spinach stems over chicken and sauce over the chicken and fritters and serve at once.

Per serving: 868 calories, 80 gm protein, 17 gm carbohydrates, 55 gm fat, 11 gm saturated fat, 329 mg cholesterol, 438 mg sodium.

ZVINGOUS (Honey-Drizzled Fritters) (12 servings)


1 1/2 cups sugar

1/2 cup honey (preferably Greek)

1 1/4 cups water

1 cinnamon stick

3 cloves

1 strip lemon zest

1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar

1 teaspoon lemon juice

1 tablespoon cognac


1 cup water

5 tablespoons butter, cut into pieces

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon sugar

1 cup flour

Grated zest of 1 lemon

5 eggs

2 to 3 cups olive oil for frying

Cinnamon for sprinkling

Prepare the syrup: combine sugar, honey, water, spices and lemon zest in a saucepan. Boil mixture for 3 to 4 minutes. Stir in cream of tartar and lemon juice. Strain syrup into a bowl and let cool to room temperature. Whisk in cognac and chill. (Recipe can be prepared ahead to this stage.)

Place the water, butter, salt and sugar in a heavy saucepan. Bring the mixture to a boil over a high heat. Remove the pan from the heat and sift in the flour. Stir the ingredients together with a wooden spoon. Return the pan to a high heat and cook the mixture, stirring steadily, for 1 to 2 minutes, or until the dough comes away from the sides of the pan in a smooth ball.

Beat in the lemon zest. Add the eggs, one by one, beating with a wooden spoon until the mixture is smooth before adding the next egg. The mixture should be the consistency of soft ice cream. (If it's too thick, add an additional egg.)

Heat oil in a saucepan to 375 degrees. (When oil reaches proper temperature, bubbles will dance around dough immediately.) Using 2 teaspoons, scoop up 1/2 blobs of dough, and push them into the hot oil. Fry for 3 or 4 minutes, or until the zvingous are puffed and golden brown. (Turn puffs in the oil with a skimmer to assure even cooking.) When cooked, transfer the puffs to paper towels to drain. Continue frying puffs, without crowding pan, until all batter is used up. Keep puffs warm in oven.

Transfer the puffs to a deep platter or shallow bowls and pour the cold syrup on top. Sprinkle with cinnamon and serve at once.

Per serving: 330 calories, 4 gm protein, 44 gm carbohydrates, 16 gm fat, 5 gm saturated fat, 127 mg cholesterol, 174 mg sodium.

Steven Raichlen is a Miami-based national food writer.