The doughnut is the plump, shining star of Chanukah in Israel. During the holiday season, the famed jam sufganiyot poses in the windows of cafés and bakeries across the country. It sparkles with oil and sugar, and shows just enough filling to keep fans interested.

Every year, top chefs compete to give the sufganiyah (the singular of sufganiyot) an edgy new twist, whether it’s cheesecake filling, mascarpone topping or a chocolate-filled squeeze tube accessory. Israeli TV channels, newspapers and social media are filled with close-up shots and reviews of the most enticing innovations.

Meanwhile, in homes across the country, Israelis quietly fry up a humbler Chanukah doughnut called the sfinj. The confection hails from North Africa, and is a favourite of Jews whose families came to Israel from the region. But even European Jews have adopted the sfinj and helped push it towards the limelight.

Part of the appeal of sfinjim, the plural for sfinj, is that they are easy to make. Simply take a dollop of dough, poke a hole in the middle and deep fry in vegetable oil. The doughnuts can then be dipped in honey and coated in sugar, usually of the powdered variety.

Israelis of North African descent prepare sfinjim for holidays and special occasions. Dan Illouz grew up in Montreal, where his family ate the doughnuts during the eight nights of
Chanukah. When he immigrated to Israel eight years ago, he was dismayed that he could only find sufganiyot, so he began making sfinjim in his kitchen to celebrate the holiday.

During Chanukah in 2010, Illouz, a 31-year-old public relations manager in Jerusalem, invited a handful of friends over to enjoy the doughnuts with him. Word spread quickly: Last year, about 400 people showed up at his three-bedroom apartment for what has become an annual sfinj party. Illouz expects at least as large a crowd for the fourth night of Chanukah this evening.

To feed the masses that show up throughout the night and spill into the street, Illouz begins preparing at around 7am, 12 hours ahead of time. He estimated that he fries up about 150 of the doughnuts. It’s a first come, first served basis.

Sfinjim are, of course, at the centre of the event, but Illouz also serves sweet couscous and store-bought Moroccan cookies and beverages. He puts on Moroccan music to set the mood, and when the sun sets, he and his guests light the Chanukiah. Needless to say, sufganiyot are not on the menu. “I’m not ideologically opposed to sufganiyot,” he explained, “but I do prefer sfinjim. They’re simpler, and they’re not quite as unhealthy.”

About half of Israelis are now of Mizrahi descent, although the numbers are becoming blurred by marriage with Asheknazi, or European Jews, and others. Mizrahi music dominates the Israeli airwaves, with some musicians even singing in Arabic. Mizrahi cuisine, from falafel to shakshuka, is not only popular street food, but is also big at high-end restaurants and on popular cooking TV shows.
And Mizrahi celebrations, such as the post-Passover Mimouna feast and the henna pre-wedding bridal shower, have been embraced by the mainstream.

Some Ashkenazi Jews have also started making sfinjim at home, often inspired by Mizrahi friends and family.

Uri Scheft, a co-owner and chef at the high-end bakery chain Lehamim, learned to make the doughnuts from his wife, whose mother immigrated to Israel from Morocco.

He included a sfinj recipe in his 2016 cookbook Breaking Breads: A New World of Israeli Baking, which celebrates the cuisines produced by the “melting pot” of Israeli society.

Scheft said he has planned for many years to serve sfinjim at his bakeries. But he would first want to set up a prep area so he could serve them fresh to customers.  “The character and the structure of sfinjim is very light, which make them very tasty, but only if they are eaten right away,” he said. “I think this is why bakeries shy away from serving them.” [JTA]