For the Love of Latkes
by Phyllis Glazer
Growing up by the sea in Belle Harbor, New York, five decades ago, I never heard of a Hanukkah doughnut. In my Ashkenazi family, Hanukkah fare was potato latkes, served with sour cream and my mother’s freshly made applesauce, or as an accompaniment to brisket.
If I close my eyes, I can still see my Odessa-born bubbe grating potatoes with a little onion, and my mother mixing in the beaten eggs and matzoh meal. Dampening her hands, my mother formed palm-sized circular patties, fried them in corn oil until they turned a golden-brown, and then drained them on paper towels. I liked them best when they were still hot and crispy.
Where did latkes come from? The word latke comes from Yiddish, and some sources claim it derives from the Old Russian oladka, adapted from the Greek eladia, meaning “little oily things.” Oil, and in particular olive oil, is at the heart of the Hanukkah story, dating back to the days of the Maccabees in 165 BCE, when a little cruse of olive oil, enough to burn for one night, miraculously kept the holy menorah alight for eight days.
Although they didn’t have potatoes, the Maccabees likely ate some “oily thing”—probably made of cheese and egg—fried in olive oil at their victory party. This may have been the start of our tradition, because wherever Jews have roamed since then, they’ve found it both necessary and desirable to invent sweet and savory Hanukkah culinary expressions with one common feature: They are all fried.
What they invented and how they fried it had everything to do with their geographical location and the weather. In the shtetls of Eastern Europe, winter pickings for the holiday were slim, but whole potatoes—which arrived in Western Europe from the New World in the 16th century and spread to the east three centuries later—were cheap, plentiful, and could last all winter in the root cellar.
In those climes, olives and their oil were scarce, and the only kosher solid fat available came from chickens, ducks and geese. Slaughtering a duck or goose on Hanukkah was considered particularly appropriate for the festive holiday meal, and some of the fat (schmaltz) was used for frying potato latkes, while the remaining fat and skin (gribenes) was rendered separately and set aside for Passover.
For Jews who settled around the Mediterranean basin or in the Middle East, where winter was relatively mild, Hanukkah arrived at the end of olive-pressing season just as it did for the Maccabees. With access to a vastly richer choice of raw materials than their Ashkenazi brethren, Sephardi Jews developed a plethora of savory holiday foods prepared in olive oil, such as fried chicken among the Italians and Moroccans.
Sephardi Jews also dreamed up Hanukkah desserts, blending flour, yeast and water, and shaping it into puffs or rounds of dough to fry. To the Greeks they were loukomades, to the Persians snail-shaped zelebi, and to North Africans the bagel-like sfenj. In Turkey, Jews of Spanish origin developed buñuelos—fritters or pancakes fried in olive oil and dipped in honey or sugar syrup or sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar.
With the exception of loukomades—the art of their preparation was virtually lost with the decimation of the Greek Jewish population in the Holocaust—these foods remain popular in Israel, with its concentration of immigrants from Arab countries. Traditional Sephardi cooks there still whip up sfenj and buñuelos. Most loved is the sufganiya, the deep-fried, sugar-coated, jelly-filled doughnut Israelis consider the quintessential Hanukkah food, distributed free at workplace parties and schools to celebrate the holiday. Weeks ahead you can find the sabra versions of Dunkin’ Donuts, likely named for their texture after the Hebrew word sfog [sponge], in supermarkets and kiosks. Gourmet renditions abound with exotic toppings like lychee or organic chocolate and fillings of handmade jams or dulce de leche at boutique bakeries. The Angel Bakery, Israel’s largest bakery chain, fries up 250,000 sufganiyot (plural for sufganiya) every day of Hanukkah.
Although outnumbered by sufganiya fans, Israeli latke lovers continue to keep the tradition alive, albeit with new twists. Homemakers and chefs have breathed new life into the latke using different kinds of grated fresh vegetables. They serve yogurt with savory latkes of zucchini and feta cheese, beets and cilantro, or carrots and ginger and adorn sweet potato breakfast latkes with a garam masala-scented maple syrup.
Still, latkes in Israel are nowhere as ubiquitous as in the United States, where hungry competitors face off in latke-eating competitions like the 2008 contest at Zan’s Deli in Lake Grove, New York, in which a 23-year-old bodybuilder from Toronto set a world record by devouring 46 latkes in eight minutes. Likewise, ambitious chefs compete to fry up the world’s largest latke, an honor currently held by a three-footer from Temple Isaiah of Newport Beach, California.
Wherever they live, many Jewish children today will never form sense-memories of cooking latkes as my generation did. Recently, I asked a 19-year-old what her mother makes on Hanukkah. She thought for a minute and said, “She buys potato latkes.” Well, I thought to myself, at least she gets to eat latkes. Not just for the taste, but to honor the past.
I firmly believe that the little potato latke, a poor man’s food that graces rich men’s tables, must never be forgotten. It preserves within it an ancient holiday tradition and a centuries-long Jewish culinary tale. It has a soul. So while others munch on caramel-filled donuts, I’m sticking to my latkes.
Zucchini, Feta & Basil Mini Frittatas
These mini-frittatas make a nice change from the traditional potato latke. Whole wheat pastry flour may be substituted for all or part of the all-purpose flour if desired. After Hanukkah, enjoy the same combination, baked in a lightly greased pan, as a crustless quiche.
2 cups coarsely grated zucchini (about 4 small-medium)
2 large eggs, separated
1¹/³ cups crumbled feta cheese
¼ cup chopped scallions
½ cup unbleached all-purpose flour (or slightly more if necessary)
½ teaspoon baking powder
1½ teaspoons chopped fresh basil or oregano (or a mixture)
¼ teaspoon black pepper
Olive oil for frying
Wash the zucchini, grate and place in a colander. Let drain 15 minutes and squeeze to remove excess liquid.
Combine the egg yolks, scallions, flour, baking powder, basil, pepper and feta cheese. Add the drained zucchini, and mix well. Whip the egg whites until soft peaks form and fold into the zucchini mixture. Heat just enough oil to cover the bottom of an 8” heavy or non-stick frying pan and pour in just enough batter to cover the bottom (about ¾ cup). Cook over medium heat untill golden-brown on one side, flip and cook the other side. Keep the finished frittatas in a warm oven until all the batter has been used.
Makes 8 frittatas
Adapted from The Essential Book of Jewish Festival Cooking, by Phyllis Glazer with Miriyam Glazer (Harper-Collins 2004)