As a child, the big Hanukkah dinner with chef Ben Puchowitz's family meant homey, comforting tastes. It meant the Eastern European flavors of cabbage and roasted vegetables, crispy latkes, a brisket bubbling in the oven, and his bubbie's sponge cake at the end of the night. It meant cousins and kids gathered on the floor in a circle to open presents, then running around to play with them as soon as the wrapping paper was torn away.
Puchowitz, who with friend Shawn Darragh owns Cheu Noodle Bar, Bing Bing Dim Sum, and Cheu Fishtown, retained memories of those formative holiday foods. Even as Asian flavors came to guide Puchowitz's restaurants, Jewish cooking remained in the forefront of dishes like the ramen with brisket and matzo ball, and "Bubbie Chow's sliced beef": brisket served with steamed buns at his Fishtown location.
As Puchowitz recently prepared a Hanukkah meal in the bright, colorful Cheu Fishtown kitchen, he built on the family recipes he grew up with, transforming them with Chinese and Japanese ingredients into dishes like barbecue brisket, latkes with scallions, sweet and sour Brussels sprouts, and cake with ginger and mandarin.
"I don't even have Hanukkah dinner anymore, but this is what we made at our dinner," he said. "I just made it a little different."
Puchowitz's father, a former butcher who served thousands of customers in Rittenhouse in the 1980s and 1990s and provided meats for untold numbers of Jewish meals, used to make cabbage soup for Hanukkah and serve it as a first course. Puchowitz added canned tomatoes and egg noodles, swapped curry powder for paprika and sprinkles chopped fresh dill over the top for a soup with a fresh, complex flavor.
His father also made the latkes, which he would set beside a bowl of sour cream and another bowl of applesauce made by his grandmother. Puchowitz's version swapped matzo meal for flour and added scallions to the potato hash, as well as furikake, a Japanese seasoning made from dried fish, seaweed, and sesame seeds.
He served his latkes, crisped golden brown and warm on the inside, with scallions, miso créme fraiche, and delicate ribbons of shaved bonito, a dried fish that evoked the oceanic flavors of smoked salmon.
"It's an exact Jewish-Japanese fusion," he said.
Puchowitz marinated his brisket, often the centerpiece at his family's Hanukkah dinner, in a Chinese-inspired blend of soy sauce, honey, oyster sauce, hoisin, and beet juice. After searing it, he braised it for several hours, drenching it in liquid made from the marinade and sauteed onions, which add flavor as they cook down. The finished slices of brisket came out juicy and infused with flavor.
For his green vegetable side dish, always a requirement on his family table, Puchowitz modified a recipe for Brussels sprouts he has served at Bing Bing Dim Sum in South Philly. He roasted them, then tossed them in a sweet-and-sour sauce made from pineapple juice, soy sauce, sugar, rice wine vinegar, and chili flakes. The sauce gave the sprouts, topped with crushed peanuts, a satisfying sweet-salty tang.
For dessert, he made his grandmother's sponge cake, mixing together eggs, sugar, potato starch, and matzo cake meal with a hint of salt, and adding lemon juice. He covered the cake with a glaze flavored with fresh ginger and the juice from mandarin oranges. The glaze made for an acidic, citrusy contrast against the light, fluffy slices of cake.
The glaze is optional, Puchowitz cautioned — the cake doesn't necessarily need it. "Other than that, it's my grandma's exact recipe," he said. "I always remember that vanilla taste."