|Alternative names||Bambalouni, khfaf, sfinz|
|Place of origin||Maghreb|
|Main ingredients||Flour, water, sugar, yeast and salt|
|137 kcal (574 kJ)|
Sfenj (from the Arabic word Arabic: السفنج, romanized: Safanj, meaning sponge) is a Maghrebi doughnut: a light, spongy ring of dough fried in oil. Sfenj is eaten plain, sprinkled with sugar, or soaked in honey. It is a well-known dish in the Maghreb and is traditionally made and sold early in the morning for breakfast or in the late afternoon accompanied by tea—usually Maghrebi mint tea—or coffee. It is also called Khfaf in Algeria and other parts of the Maghreb, bambalouni in Tunisia, and sfinz in Libya. Outside the Maghreb, sfenj is often eaten by Moroccan Jews and other Sephardim in Israel and elsewhere for Hanukkah. Sfenj and other doughnuts are eaten for Hanukkah because they are fried in oil, commemorating the Hanukkah miracle wherein the oil that was supposed to light the lamp in the Temple in Jerusalem for only one day lasted for eight. Though sfenj can be made at home, as it usually is in Israel, Moroccans almost always opt to purchase it from street vendors or bakeries, where they are commonly strung on palm fronds.
Sfenj originated in Al-Andalus, otherwise known as Muslim Spain. According to legend, sfenj was created by mistake, when a baker accidentally dropped a ball of dough into a pan of hot oil. Sfenj was an important part of Andalusi culture, whose role was best summarized by a verse from a contemporary poet: "The sfenj bakers are worth as much as kings" ("سفاجين تحسبهم ملوكا").
It is unclear how sfenj first spread to the Maghreb, although it is said that it was well known to the Banumarin Dynasty who originated in the Aurès region of Algeria and who ruled Morocco from 1270 to 1465. It also spread to France during the 13th century, where it inspired beignets.
Though sfenj comes from Al-Andalus, most bakers and sellers of sfenj in the Maghreb have traditionally been Amazigh (Berbers). The nomadic Amazigh are thought to have spread sfenj throughout the Maghreb aided in that by merchants who traveled across the region.
Dedicated sfenj bakers, called sufnāj (سفناج), soon appeared throughout the Maghreb, attesting to the dessert's popularity. Sufnājeen (plural of sufnāj) became central figures in the social life of Maghrebi neighborhoods, as they interacted with almost every household in their community every morning, and working as a sufnāj was considered a respectable career. In a traditional sfenj bakery, the sufnāj (and their large circular fryer) sit on an elevated platform, raised slightly above the rest of the bakery, which is already raised more than a meter off the ground. Customers surround this platform and try to catch the sufnāj's attention to place their orders by raising their hand at him or her in a manner reminiscent of the Nazi salute and shouting. For this reason, sufnājeen are often nicknamed "Hitler" (هتلر).
Sfenj were only sweetened with sugar starting in the 18th century, even though sugarcane has been widely cultivated in the Arab world since the 8th century. Before that, they were sweetened with honey or syrup, or simply served plain.
Sfenj entered Israeli culture before 1948, as Maghrebian Jews brought it with them when they immigrated to Mandatory Palestine. Sfenj quickly became popular for Hanukkah, as it is easy to prepare at home. However, sfenj's ease of preparation contributed to its loss of popularity in Israel. During the late 1920s, the Histadrut, Israel's national labor union, pushed to make the jelly-filled sufganiyah the traditional food of Hanukkah. Making sufganiyot well can only be done by professional bakers, and the Histadrut wanted sufganiyot to supplant sfenj in order to secure jobs for Jewish bakers. Their effort was successful: by 2016, Israel's 7 million Jews were eating 20 million sufganiyot per year, while few Israelis of non-Moroccan origin eat sfenj. More Israeli Jews report eating sufganiyot for Hanukkah than fasting for Yom Kippur.
In addition to ordinary sfenj, there are two special varieties of sfenj, not counting the different toppings (honey, syrup, and sugar) sfenj can have:
Sfenj being deep fried in a traditional tilted deep fryer in Marrakesh, Morocco. The sfenj are placed on the edge with no oil to fry the bottom and inflate the dough. Once fully inflated they are moved into the hot oil.
Khfaf from Kabylie in Algeria
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