(photo from Joy/flickr.com)
An old folk proverb says, “Chanukah latkes teach us that one cannot live by miracles alone.”
Jewish food writer and cookbook author Joan Nathan contends that the word latke is not Yiddish, as everyone presumes, but stems from “a Russian word, latka, and a pastry, from obsolete Russian, oladka, or flat cake of leavened wheat dough.” This, in turn, probably came from a Middle Greek word, eladion, or oil cake, stemming from elaion, meaning olive oil.
Potato pancakes do seem to have originated among poor Eastern European Jews, but potatoes did not become a staple until the mid-19th century. John Cooper, in Eat and Be Satisfied: A Social History of Jewish Food, comments that Jews from Lithuania ate pancakes made from potato flour for Chanukah and had borrowed the idea from the Ukrainians, who made a potato pancake dish with goose fat called kartoflani platske, which they ate for Christmas. Since Chanukah fell about the same time, and there were plenty of geese to provide goose fat or schmaltz, we could conclude that schmaltz became a substitute for oil. Jews living in the Pale of Settlement in the 17th century probably adapted it for Chanukah as a way to dress potatoes differently for the holiday. Cooper also states that many Eastern European Jews ate buckwheat latkes for Chanukah, while Polish Jews made placki (pancakes) from potato flour and fried them in oil.
But what happens when you get tired of potato latkes? Here are some variations for Chanukah.
OLD JERUSALEM ZUCCHINI PANCAKES
Adapted from The Delights of Jerusalem by Rena Valero (Steimatzky, 1985). Recipe makes 20 patties.
salt, to taste
salt and pepper to taste
1 diced onion
2 tbsp chopped parsley
2 tbsp chopped dill
2 large eggs
1/2 cup matzah meal
1 tbsp vegetable oil
oil for frying
- Grate unpeeled zucchini into a strainer. Sprinkle with salt and drain for 30 minutes. Squeeze to remove remaining liquid.
- In a mixing bowl, combine zucchini, salt, pepper, onion, parsley, dill, eggs and matzah meal and one tablespoon oil.
- Heat oil in a frying pan. Form zucchini mixture into patties. Fry for a few a minutes on each side. Drain on paper towels.
makes 16 patties
5 grated parsnips
2 grated carrots
1/4 cup flour
1 tsp dry chives or onion
1 tsp dry parsley
1/2 tsp salt
- Grate parsnips and carrots into a mixing bowl and toss with flour.
- Add eggs, chives or onion, parsley and salt and mix.
- Heat oil in a frying pan. Make latkes by hand, add to oil, and fry until brown on both sides. Drain on paper towels.
VEGETABLE FETA LATKES
makes 10 to 12 patties
1 cup grated carrots
2 1/2 cups grated zucchini
1 cup grated potatoes or grated kohlrabi
1/2 tsp salt
salt and pepper to taste
3/4 cup flour
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese
1/5 cup vegetable oil
- Place carrots, zucchini and potato (or kohlrabi) in a colander. Cover with cheesecloth or paper towels and squeeze out as much liquid as possible. Sprinkle salt and let them drain 15 minutes, then squeeze in paper towels.
- Place vegetables in a mixing bowl. Add eggs, salt and pepper, flour, parsley and cheese.
- Heat oil in a frying pan. Form mixture into patties. Fry in hot oil until brown on both sides. Drain on paper towels.
Applesauce & sour cream
Recently, someone asked me, why applesauce and sour cream for latkes? I wrote to my American Jewish food expert friend, Joan Nathan, but she didn’t know, so I Googled latkes and applesauce, found a blogger who voiced an idea, and I thought it made sense.
He suggested that, maybe, one year before Chanukah, a shopkeeper somewhere in Eastern Europe placed his annual order for potatoes to his dry goods provider. He wrote potatoes in Hebrew as tapuah adama. Somehow, the word adama was inadvertently erased and ended up being tapuach, the Hebrew word for apple. The supplier read the order and scratched his head, wondering why the shopkeeper didn’t want potatoes for Chanukah. But, due to the limits of communication back in those days, he couldn’t check with him in time, so he went ahead and filled the order, sending a bushel of apples.
When the shopkeeper saw the apples instead of potatoes, he wondered what to do with them but then figured, surely they would be a treat for Chanukah. He was able to sell the idea to the townspeople to buy apples, and some clever women decided to cook the apples – hence, applesauce. By the end of the holiday, everyone was raving about the apples and apple dishes.
In the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, Gil Marks wrote that Greek Jews had a tradition that the Maccabees ate duck with apples to celebrate their victory, and that this was extended to serving apple rings, apple fritters and applesauce.
John Cooper, in Eat and Be Satisfied, reasons that the only fat for frying latkes was schmaltz, so the only topping could be applesauce.
Another source says apples were eaten on Rosh Chodesh, the start of a new month. Hungarian Jews made apple cake and strudel or tart for Rosh Hashanah, while Indian Jews dip apple in honey and rose water and Sephardi Jews make apple compote. Ashkenazi Jews serve apple strudel on Sukkot, and children place apples at the end of a flag stick for Simchat Torah.
As for sour cream, well, made in its fermented form, it was popular in the Slavic region. The idea of boiled potatoes eaten with sour cream was associated with Eastern European Jews, so, if they found a substitute for the schmaltz when frying their latkes, they could well have used sour cream as an accompaniment.
Sybil Kaplan is a journalist, author, compiler/editor of nine kosher cookbooks and a food writer for North American Jewish publications, who lives in Jerusalem where she leads weekly walks of the Jewish food market, Machaneh Yehudah, in English.