Fenugreek, Dal, and Hanukkah

A review ofQueen of the Hanukkah DosasPamela Ehrenberg and Anjan Sarkar, Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers, 2017

The child narrator of Pamela Ehrenberg and Anjan Sarkar’s Queen of the Hanukkah Dosas has a problem.  He looks forward to the yearly ritual of his Jewish and Indian family preparing their Hanukkah culinary specialty, dosas, a traditional Indian pancake prepared from fermented rice and lentils fried in coconut oil.

dosas

His sister Sadie, however, becomes the perennial younger sibling rival, possessor of some outrageous personality trait singularly dedicated to ruining any joyous experience.  Sadie “climbed too much.”  She scales a pyramid of coconut milk cans in the local Indian market and climbs onto the kitchen counter, knocking the salt out of her brother’s hands.  While this completely ordinary toddler activity seems a bit weak as a hook to hang a story on, author and illustrator put together a sweet picture of family unity, and of mixed ethnic customs that seem so normal to children who love them.

Fried foods for Hanukkah are symbolic of the small cruse of oil that miraculously lasted for eight days, enough to illuminate the menorah in the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem.  While potato latkes (pancakes) and sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts), are the customary oi-rich dishes for this holiday, the family in this book, a Jewish dad, Indian mom and amma-amma (grandmother) and two kids make dosas, decorate their home with paper dreidels, and host a gathering for aunts, uncles, and cousins. When Mom and Dad accidentally lock themselves out of the house, Sadie is small enough to climb through a window once Dad has helped her out of her impressive dreidel costume.  Everyone then enjoys a lot of food.

Both the words and the pictures in this book are rather flat, which is not a bad thing. The story is told from the perspective of a child, so while his description of his mom oiling the pan, “Just like the Maccabees,” makes no sense historically, it captures his sense of her as a hero.  His lack of sympathy for an unrestrained little sister is also plausible from his frustrated perspective of an older brother wanting the dosas to come out just right, as they always have.  The pictures are rather cartoon like, with family members having appealing faces with similar features and little detail.  In fact, the two parents, although their coloring is opposite, actually look somewhat alike, again reflecting the way a child might see them as a reassuring and stable pair.

The most clever and memorable part of the story is the author’s revision of the American/Yiddish Hanukkah song beloved by children for its very monotony: “I had a little dreidel; I made it out of clay.”

dreidel

Here it becomes “I had a little dosa; I made it out of dal.” The book includes two recipes, for dosas and sambar, and Indian vegetable stew.  The endpapers bring the reader into the Indian market, with neat rows of specific vegetables, jars, and sacks containing branded items such as “Chandra No. 1 Toor Dal” and “Hing Compounded Asafoeitida.”  This book could provide an interesting alternative to the time-honored tradition of American Jews enjoying Chinese food on Christmas!

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