Never Underestimate the Doughnut Lobby
Sfenj in Fez
The gift I woke up to on the first morning of Chanukah last December was oily, as all good Chanukah foods should be. For breakfast at my guesthouse in Fez, Morocco, I’d been given sfenj, the deep-fried, ring-shaped pastry that’s a staple of Maghrebi mornings and Moroccan Jewish celebrations.
But Assad, my young server—he told me he was 15; I would’ve guessed several years younger—likely had no idea of the Jewish holiday when he set out the sfenj and bowls of olives, soft cheese, apricot jam, and flavorful honey.
“Everything great? Happy?” he asked as he bustled around me and pointed to the intricately painted coffee table where he’d arranged the food. Of course, I replied. I picked up the sfenj. The outside was slightly crispy, and I caught a whiff of the dense oiliness imparted by the deep fryer. My fingers became sticky as I pulled the sfenj apart and spread honey on it.
The word “sfenj” comes from the Arabic for “sponge,” and the comparison is spot-on. The texture is soft and pillowy, like an airy, raised doughnut. But the yeast-based dough is barely sweetened, if at all, so its tanginess works well with sugary toppings.
Later that day, walking through the narrow paths of Fez’s ancient medina, the walled old city, I saw men peddling their sfenj, straight out of the hot oil, on long wooden poles. One of these men had fried the sfenj I’d eaten for breakfast. Later, I’d see the cook at the guesthouse press a few coins into Assad’s palm, who returned a half hour later with armfuls of fruit, spices for the tagines, traditional mint green tea, and brown paper bags full of sfenj.
Today, a popular Chanukah dessert among Jewish families like mine is sufganiyot (the plural of sufganiyah), jelly-filled doughnuts that originated in Central Europe. However, it was almost Moroccan sfenj that attained this status at Chanukah celebrations.
Sfenj, which were brought to British Palestine by Moroccan Jews in the decades before Israel was founded in 1948, caught on as a perfect Chanukah treat because they were easy to make at home. But in the Holy Land, this was precisely what caused their downfall. The Histadrut, the Israeli Labor Union, campaigned for people to choose sufganiyot for Chanukah instead; because sufganiyot were considerably more difficult to fry up at home, people needed to buy them from professional Jewish bakers—hence, more jobs for Jewish workers.
But while millions of Jews worldwide now eat sufganiyot on Chanukah, sfenj and its flatter cousins, like Algerian khfaf and Libyan sfinz, are still popular across Moroccan Jewish communities in Israel and breakfast tables in North Africa.
The next morning, after Assad greeted me with a goofy smile, a salesman’s pat on the back, and a giggly teenage attempt to ensnare me into reading swear words in Arabic, he asked me how I liked the sfenj yesterday. I asked him for two that day.