Happy Hanukkah! Now, I’m not Jewish. But I feel happy to send you this greeting no matter your religious associations. Because around my house we like to say I am Jewish adjacent, that’s because my partner is Sephardic. The differences between Sephardic Jews and Ashkenazi Jews are partly cultural and partly religious. These two branches of Judaism separated at one time by geography still retain many of their distinct culinary traditions (Sweet Potato Latkes).
One of these Ashkenazi culinary holiday traditions is the latke– joyously served as part of a Hanukkah celebration.
The Gentiles among us may ask “What makes a potato pancake, or more simply a potato fritter, a latke? “Well my reading tells me that a latke is much more than a pancake made from fried potatoes. In fact the potato latke is symbolic. It’s a potato pancake on the outside but it represents the “humble man’s” neshamah or what we in English might describe as a soul.
Geez (pardon the expression) that’s a whole lotta holiday pressure to put onto one little pancake? But it does explain how the latke came to represent an integral part of this holiday for most Ashkenazi Jews.
Sweet Potato Latkes
But potato latkes aren’t as traditional an element in the Sephardic Hanukkah tradition. In fact weren’t even originally a part of Ashkenazi Hanukkah cuisine either.
In case you don’t know Hanukkah dates back to 168 BC, when the Syrian-Greek King Antiochus plundered Israel’s most holy of Jewish sites, the Temple in Jerusalem. The Jews living in the outskirts of Jerusalem were angered and took up arms as they vowed never to submit to King Antiochus. They called themselves the Maccabees and after a fierce three year battle they freed Jerusalem.
Once the battle was over, the Maccabees rid the Temple of foreign idols and lit a golden menorah (oil lamp) with the last of the purified olive oil. Those in the temple were worried as it seemed there was only enough oil to burn for just one day. But then, according to tradition, a miracle happened– the oil lasted for eight (crazy) nights, exactly the time it took them to press more oil for the lamp. So it has come to be that in order to commemorate the Miracle of the Oil Jews all over the world light there own menorahs and eat foods fried in oil on Hanukkah.
So you see the tradition of fried food did not necessarily indicate the the food need be potatoes, as oil is the elemental ingredient– not potatoes. In fact many of the fried foods associated with Hanukkahs of centuries past would typically include ingredients available in the areas in which they lived. Spanish Jews were far more likely to serve chicken fried in oil. While Greek, North African and Turkish Jews (whose roots are shared with Sephardic Jews) often enjoyed sweet dough fried in olive oil as their symbolic fried dish for Hanukkah. Eating “local” may seem like a a modern buzz word. But actually modernity is what ended mankind’s tradition of local food. I think you get it.
Ashkenazi Jews developed their traditions in Eastern Europe where harsh winters made for frugal choices. But potatoes were cheap and usually available from even the “most humble” of root cellars. So I don’t think you need me to explain why the potato latke developed as a Ashkenazi Hanukkah tradition.
Now I am not just spouting all this to impress you with my knowledge of the Jewish religion, what I don’t know about Judaism could fill a stadium. I am just trying to make a point about the interconnectedness of life and the world and even history. Because it seems to me that the frying is what is most important here in this tradition. So I humbly offer you my version of a fried latke. It uses sweet potatoes (because I like ’em). Which may not be “strictly” traditional. But I hope you’ll look to my intentions with this recipe. I am trying to blend the traditions of Hanukkah with the way my not overly religious Jewish/Christian household operates in the modern world. It’s my nod to the past, with both feet in the present.
Sweet Potato Latkes
So that’s what I know about Hanukkah and latkes! It’s not much and most of it I picked up from the Jewish Virtual Library and Tori (The Shiksa in the Kitchen). But that’s not the point– because Jewish or not, Hanukkah or no, it’s fun to spend a little time in another man’s shoes. Food traditions are a great way to do just that. Besides this is a tasty recipe that I know you would enjoy, even if you prefer to call it a fritter. GREG
- 1 large sweet potato, about 1 lb
- 1 medium russet potato, about 1/2 pound
- salt and white pepper to taste
- 1/2 c all purpose flour
- 3 large eggs
- vegetable oil for fryer, as needed
- 2 c applesauce
- 3 scallions, finely sliced (green parts only)
- 1 c sour cream
Using a box grater, or the equivilant sized grating disc on a food processor, grate the sweet and the russet potato. Combine them both in a large bowl. Season with salt and a pinch of white pepper. Toss to combine.
Add flour and stir the mixture together well to distribute the flour evenly. Add eggs continuing to stir and mix. In a large cast iron skillet or non-stick frying pan set over medium heat, heat about 1/4″ deep of vegetable oil. While the oil heats form the potato mixture into 3‑inch rounds that are about 1/2‑inch thick, squeeze out as much of the moisture as you can as you form them.
Using a spatula so that the Sweet Potato Latkes do not fall apart carefully add them to the hot oil, working with 2 or 3 at a time. Fry until golden brown on both sides and cooked through, about 4 minutes per side. Remove to a paper-towel lined plate and season with more salt. Repeat this procedure with all of the grated potato mixture, adding more oil to the pan as necessary. Serve with applesauce, green onions and sour cream.
Sweet Potato Latkes