Elucidating latkes

By Liz Ison

“Although the potato latke has become the iconic Ashkenazic Hanukkah food, it is actually a relatively new innovation. The Maccabees never saw a potato, much less a potato pancake.”

Gil Marks, Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, 2010

So, how did potato latkes and Hanukkah become associated?

Latkes for Hanukkah (c) Liz Ison

Latkes for Hanukkah (c) Liz Ison

Gil Marks, an American Rabbi, chef and food writer has the answer. He has spent the last 25 years writing the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food – an incredibly erudite and fascinating book. This article draws on the Encyclopedia entries for latkes, Hanukkah and potatoes. (By the way, there is even an entry in the Encyclopedia for water, and, once you’ve read it, you’ll realise why water is Jewish too!)

Encyclopedia of Jewish Food

Let’s start in the twelfth century. There is reference to Hanukkah foods in a hymn “Zemer Naeh” by the Spanish scholar Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089-1164). Ibn Ezra describes an idealised Hanukkah feast of wine, fine flour, doves, ducks and fatted geese. No latkes. No potatoes. No oil. (Interestingly, goose was the precursor to the Christmas turkey and is still a Yuletide staple in many European countries).

The tradition of eating fried food during Hanukkah – in recognition of the miracle of oil that is central to the Hanukkah story – appears to have originated in 14th century Italy. The first recorded association between Hanukkah and pancakes was made by Rabbi Kalonymus ben Kalonymus (c.1286-1328), who was living in Rome. He included pancakes in a list of dishes to serve at Purim and Hanukkah. These would have been ricotta cheese pancakes and fried in olive oil, in fact combining the subsequent tradition of having both dairy and fried foods during the festival (the dairy tradition originating from the story of Judith, Holofernes and the salty cheese, but let’s not get sidetracked).

However, although the tradition of pancakes on Hanukkah spread to north-eastern Europe, the tradition of using cheese in their Hanukkah pancakes was replaced by use of rye batter or buckwheat flour. So we’ve got to fried pancakes, but still no potatoes. And these sorts of pancakes were not specifically called latkes – there were many different words for pancake in Yiddish.

The origin of the word latke – basically pancake – is truly ancient – though we are talking Greek, not Hebrew. Latke is derived from the Ukrainian word for pancake and fritter, oladka, by way of the Greek eladia (little “oilies”) which is derived from elaion (olive oil). Is there an irony here about having a Greek-derived word for one of the main culinary traditions of Hanukkah, the festival celebrating our fight against Greek assimilation?

If you are still with me on this historical journey to the root of the humble potato latke, bear with me as we have just a few centuries to go before the latke goes mainstream in the Big Apple. Click below for a latke one-liner from a 1996 episode of Seinfeld set in New York that demonstrates just that.

(“These latkes are going like hot cakes”)

Let’s get back to the sixteenth century when the potato was brought over to Spain after its discovery in the Americas. The potato had been very slow to catch on in Europe, initially greeted with hostility, and regarded as a source of leprosy or poisonous.

It wasn’t till much later, in the nineteenth century, that potatoes had become a staple of the eastern European diet. Potato dishes became an integral part of Jewish cuisine – kugels, dumplings, knishes, kreplach, to name a few. The potato pancake, made from grated potato, was common in many cuisines, German, Ukrainian, Swiss. So, at last, the Jewish version of this potato pancake – the kartofel latke – was prepared, especially for Hanukkah, when it was often served with braised brisket.

I’m not sure what’s happened to the braised brisket, but we’ve reached the point where potato, pancake and oil have created a winning combination. So the tradition of eating latkes at Hanukkah was established.

Let us know whether there are any other Jewish foods or dishes you would like to know the origin of?

Click here for WimShul Cooks Alison’s modern twist on latkes.

By the way, this is another Seinfeld clip on Jewish food:

Happy Hanukkah!

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3 thoughts on “Elucidating latkes

  1. Pingback: Time to reinvent the latke? « Wimshul Cooks

  2. Such clarity thanks! I had been having an ‘oranges can’t be the only fruit’ moment with regard to latkes as I have no memory of latkes in my childhood. Then a memory of me devouring blinis with chopped egg whilst the rest of the family enjoyed the additional smoked salmon,onions, capers and sour cream came to the fore. Might that be a Chanukah memory of Russian Jews in Paris…? I hope so.

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