You Call That a Latke?
Chanukah is here, and so are latkes. But when people start fiddling with this sacred dish, watch out!
By Mary Beth Crain
What’s the big deal about latkes? They’re just potato pancakes, right? You don’t have to be Jewish, and it doesn’t have to be Chanukah, to indulge in them. You can get them anywhere, any day of the week. Like at IHOP. They have great potato pancakes. Big, fat, crisp ones, served just like we Jews serve latkes on Chanukah, with your choice of applesauce or sour cream.
Ah, but there is a difference between a Chanukah latke and a plain old everyday potato pancake. A Chanukah latke is not just food. It’s a tradition, a symbol, a statement of identity. As such, it is a volatile substance, igniting philosophical wars and leading to fierce ideological combat. There are as many different ways to make a latke as there are Jews to tell you how. What to put on your latke is also a matter of intense debate. There are definite latke do’s and don’ts. So, as Chanukah moves into full swing, I figured you all might appreciate a brief lesson in latke etiquette.
First of all, a little latke history. Now, “latke” and “potato” are not necessarily synonymous. Latke is actually the Ukrainian word for “pancake.” Therefore, if you look in a Jewish cookbook, you’re likely to find, in addition to potato latkes, sour milk latkes, buttermilk latkes, and blueberry latkes. The potato latke, however, has become the traditional Chanukah dish and nobody really knows why. Since the potato was first brought back to Europe by Spanish explorers in the late 16th century, the early Jews didn’t even have a clue what potatoes were.
This is the deal, though: the operative word here is “fried.” Fried food is a holiday tradition, celebrating the “miracle of the oil.” When the Maccabees re-took the Jewish temple from the Greeks during the Ptolemaic Empire, the Jewish people began an eight-day celebration in honor of their liberation. They wanted to light the menorah, the sacred branched temple candelabra, for the full eight days, but the Greeks had defiled the temple and the worshippers could find only a tiny vial of the ritually purified oil that was required. Miraculously, the smidgen of oil lasted for eight days. So the Jews re-dedicated the temple—the word “Chanukah” means “re-dedication”—and the eating of fried food recalls the Little Bit of Oil that Could. Latkes are fried in oil, as are another, less famous, Chanukah delicacy, sufganiyot, or jelly doughnuts.
Which brings us to Latke Heresy. In this modern age of health food obsession and designer creative cooking, latke recipes abound that are so sacrilegious I can almost hear my grandmother’s screams of “Oy Vey Is Mir!” from her grave. Here’s a particularly heinous one I found the other day: “Oven Crisped Latkes.” The nerve! It comes from the Santa Fe New Mexican and, in addition to using whole wheat matzoh meal—oh, how annoyingly PC—it calls for baking the latkes instead of frying them. “Crisping the latkes in the oven instead of frying them in oil cuts the fat significantly,” we’re informed. So who wants to cut the fat? You cut the fat, you cut the whole meaning of the latke ritual, you cholesterol conscious shmoes!
Then there’s the Yoga Journal’s “Tofu Latkes,” or as my grandmother would call them, “Tofu Schmofu Latkes.” This goody two shoes recipe calls for “lite” silken tofu—plain old regular isn’t bad enough—nutritional yeast, whole wheat flour, egg replacer, soy milk, non-stick cooking spray (to use a good Yiddish expression of disdain—Feh!) and—just how blasphemous can you get---mashed potato flakes instead of the good old-fashioned hand grated fresh potatoes! Shame! The day a good Jewish housewife used mashed potato flakes in her latkes would have been the day she forfeited her place in heaven.
But it’s that Amazin’ Asian chef, Ming Tsai, who takes the pancake with his “Wasabi Potato Latkes.” What is the world coming to? Next thing we know, they’ll be passing out dreidles at Chinese New Year. As heretical as Ming’s latkes are, however, they sound so absolutely delicious that I have to give you the recipe, courtesy of Foodnetwork.com:
WASABI POTATO "LATKES"
2 cups warm riced potatoes (boiled in salted water, drained well)
In a bowl, mix warm potatoes and butter. Mix in scallions, horseradish and wasabi. Season with salt and pepper. Shape potato mixture into 2 1/2 inch diameter cakes. Dredge the cakes in flour followed by egg and finally panko. Deep fry cakes at 350 degrees until golden brown.
They’ll definitely be the hit at your next Asian Chanukah.
OK. Speaking of recipes, how do you make a good old-fashioned traditional latke? Well, like I said, everybody’s got their own definitive latke recipe, handed down by mom or grandma. The standard latke ingredients are potatoes—grated by hand or food processor; flour or matzoh meal or a combination of both; beaten eggs; a few tablespoons of oil; grated or chopped onion; and some salt and pepper. You mix it all up, make patties, and fry them on both sides until done.
This year I made traditional Romanian potato latkes, which use a combination of grated potatoes and zucchini. I also added seasoned salt, paprika and onion powder, and, in addition to the flour but instead of the matzoh meal, breadcrumbs. They were so good they literally flew off the plate. My brother, who can be blunt about my cooking, even proclaimed them the best latkes he’s ever eaten. Here’s the recipe:
CRAIN’S GYPSY SUPER LATKES
5 medium potatoes (I used Idaho, which seemed to be lower in moisture)
Peel the potatoes and zucchini and grate into large bowl. Pick up by small handfuls and squeeze out as much moisture as you can. Squeeze hard! Return to bowl. Let dry for a half hour or so. Grate the onion or chop it fine. Beat the eggs and add to the potatoes, onion, and zucchini. Add the other ingredients. If the mixture is too wet, add more breadcrumbs and flour, but sparingly. You want a consistency that’s moist but malleable.
Heat up enough oil to fry the pancakes in. Drop the batter by big spoonfuls into the oil or form patties by hand. Flatten and fry around 3-4 minutes on each side, adjusting heat accordingly (I start on Hi and, after a minute or so, lower it to medium). I always test the first one to make sure it’s done on the inside. If not, fry a little longer on med-lo heat.
And how do you eat a latke? That’s another hot debate topic. Some people top them with applesauce, others with sour cream. At my Chanukah meal this year, I went for the sour cream, my brother and sister-in-law grabbed the applesauce, and my elderly mother—who remembers how our family served latkes some 80 years ago—insisted that there was only one way to eat latkes: with sugar on top. Amusingly, none of us were willing to stretch a little and try each others’ favorite toppings. Latkes are so personal, and carry so much nostalgia in each bite, that the whole experience could be ruined by something that challenges our memories of Chanukahs Past.
Well, anyway, that’s the scoop on latkes. Happy Chanukah, Merry Christmas and to hell with that non-stick cooking spray. Remember the Temple!
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Senior editor Mary Beth Crain's last essay for SoMA was Kitchen "Kinks" and Evil Urges: A Domestic History, Part II.
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