An Egyptian Hanukkah Tradition Lives on in NYC
Shared by Nir Mesika
Recipe Roots: Alexandria, Egypt > Kiryat Ha'im, Israel > New York City
The kitchen in Nir Mesika’s childhood home near Haifa extended beyond its four walls — a seven minute walk in one direction and a five minute drive in another the homes of his grandparents. “Both families used to live in the kitchen,” Nir, who is the chef and owner of New York’s modern Israeli restaurant Timna, says.
On Hanukkah, pans of oil bubbled in both of his grandmothers’ kitchens. His Moroccan grandmother Mazal fried sfinge, a light doughnut, round with a hole in the center. Nearby, Rubi, Nir’s Egyptian grandmother would drop small bubble gum-sized balls of dough into the hot oil to make zalabia that were dressed with a syrup of honey and served after lighting the menorah.
While zalabia is popular with many Jewish families from the Maghreb to India for Hanukkah, Nir explains that Rubi learned her recipe from her Muslim neighbors in Alexandria who would make the sweet during Ramadan. “Even for the Jews, it was a really exciting month,” Nir explains recalling stories his grandmother told him growing up of an era where relations between Jews and their Muslim neighbors in Egypt were easier.
It’s a recipe Rubi brought with her to Paris where she lived for a year and finally to Israel, where she settled in 1951. She made it not only for Hanukkah but also for a Friday afternoon snack to tide Nir and other family members over to dinner, and for mimouna, a celebratory meal with many sweets to end Passover.
When Nir moved to New York City in 2012, it was around the time of mimouna that he realized he missed his grandmother’s cooking, particularly her zalabia. He called Rubi for the recipe and put a riff on her doughnuts on the menu at his restaurant. He’s continued to play with it, swapping his grandmother’s rosewater with floral orange blossom water in a recipe he shared with us.
Nir is the keeper of Rubi’s zalabia. “This recipe got a little forgotten,” Nir explains. “Basically, I’m the only one who makes it in the family.”
More Recipes from Nir’s Family:
Egyptian Short Rib & Okra Stew with Tomatoes and Fragrant Rice
Egyptian Chicken Sofrito with Potatoes
Rubi's Zalabia with Honey and Orange Blossom Syrup
Makes: about 2 dozen
Time: 1 hour and 30 minutes
For the dough:
2 cups all purpose flour
1 ½ cups warm water
2 ¼ teaspoons active dry yeast (1 packet)
1 tablespoon of sugar
2 tablespoons canola oil + canola oil for frying
¼ teaspoon salt
For the sauce:
½ cup honey
2 tablespoons orange blossom water
Juice from ½ a lemon
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1. For the dough: In a small bowl, add the yeast to warm water. Let sit until bubbles start to form, about 5 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, sift the flour into a medium bowl and add sugar.
3. Add the yeast mixture to the flour, and whisk to combine (dough should be on the wet side). Mix in oil and salt. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise for 40 minutes in a warm place or until dough has doubled in size and bubbles start to form on the top.
4. For the Syrup: Combine honey, orange blossom water, lemon juice, and lemon zest in a medium bowl. Set aside.
5. For the Doughnuts: Fill a high walled, heavy bottomed pot with 3-4 inches of canola oil. Warm the oil over high heat until small pieces of dough start to cook when you test them in the oil.
6. Lightly coat hands in oil. Working in batches, pinch off 2 tablespoons of dough at a time and gently lower into hot oil. The shape of the dough will be irregular.
7. Fry, turning occasionally, until puffed, crisp and golden brown, about 2 minutes each side. Make sure to monitor the heat (turning it down when necessary) so that the outside of the doughnuts do not cook too quickly leaving the inside undercooked. Remove from oil using a slotted spoon and place directly into the bowl with the sauce. Toss to coat.
8. Stack on a serving dish, sprinkle with extra sauce, and serve immediately.