A latkes tale: How the spud became a Hanukkah favorite

Would Hanukkah be the same without the latke? The very thought is sacrilege.

“The latke is one of the most symbolic Jewish foods,” said Evan Bloom, co-owner and chef of San Francisco’s Wise Sons Deli, which added latkes to the Hanukkah menu last year and now serves them year-round. “People see them and want to order them, because they’re fried potatoes, which are always good.”

on the cover photo/cathleen maclearie

But while it is hard to imagine Hanukkah without also picturing a plate of hot, crispy potato pancakes, it was relatively recently — a couple hundred years ago — that East European Jews were introduced to the potato, the ingredient essential to the latke’s latke-ness.

The potato is not indigenous to Europe, and compared with other culinary imports from the Western Hemisphere, it was a relative latecomer. Brought over from Peru in the 16th century, it made its way first to Spain and the British Isles, and then slowly to the rest of Europe.

Tomatoes and chili peppers, other imports from the Americas, were integrated into European cuisine earlier than the potato, according to food historian Ken

Albala, director of University of the Pacific’s new food studies program in San Francisco. And unlike other New World products that caught on relatively quickly, the potato wasn’t an instant hit in Europe, especially Eastern Europe.

“Potatoes did not fit into a culinary niche that Europeans knew about,” said Albala, whose Sephardic grandparents emigrated from Turkey and Greece a century ago. “They didn’t know how to cook them.”

But once introduced, people quickly realized the advantages of growing root vegetables: Enemy troops can’t easily spot them (they’re underground, after all) and, therefore, don’t steal them, Albala said.

In addition, “they are really adaptable, they don’t have specific light requirements and can grow in different latitudes, which is not true of all plants.”

Albala points to a folktale about Frederick the Great, king of Prussia in the late 18th century, who tried to make the spud more popular by planting a potato garden and posting guards at the site. That, of course, made people think there must be something highly desirable growing there. At the changing of the guards, people would break in and steal the potatoes, not even knowing what they were or how to cook them.

Evan Bloom

“That story is almost certainly not true, but he did promote potatoes, and that’s why you find them in Prussia [now Latvia and Lithuania] and in Germany, countries with big Jewish populations,” Albala said.

By the mid-19th century, the potato was a dietary staple throughout the European continent. That meant it figured largely in Ashkenazi Jewish diets, as well. While we tend to think of Jewish cuisine as unique, Albala said, in fact, diaspora Jews have always incorporated native foods into their diets. Jews followed local food trends wherever they lived, said Albala, not because they enjoyed trying new things but because realistically they had little choice: They ate what was available, as long as it was kosher.

Potato latkes might mark an Ashkenazi home at Hanukkah, but that’s not true for every Jewish community.

In Sephardic homes, buñelos (fritters topped with honey) are the preferred holiday treat, though pancakes are sometimes made with spinach or leeks. And in modern-day Israel, jelly-filled doughnuts called sufganiyot are sold on every street corner at Hanukkah. Sufganiot were brought to Israel by Jews from North Africa.

What’s more, latkes were not always potato-based. The first latkes came from Italy and were made with cheese, to commemorate the biblical heroine Judith, who beheaded the Assyrian general Holofernes by plying him with wine and salty cheese. The Israelites were then victorious against the leaderless Assyrians. Even though this story never made it into the Torah, a ricotta-like cheese was fried in Judith’s honor — her bravery likened her to the Maccabees, who took back the Temple in Jerusalem from the Seleucid Empire in the second century BCE, and her story is often retold during Hanukkah today.

Ken Albala

According to Jewish food expert Gil Marks and his 2010 “Encyclopedia of Jewish Food,” an Italian, Rabbi Kalonymus ben Kalonymus, was the first to connect pancakes to Purim and Hanukkah in the 13th century. After the Jews were expelled from Sicily in 1492, they introduced their ricotta cheese pancakes, called cassola, to northern Italian Jews. The pancakes were fried in oil, to remember the central miracle of the Hanukkah tale — a one-day supply of oil lasting eight days during the Maccabees’ heroic defense of the Temple.

In Eastern Europe, though, shmaltz was the fat of choice for frying in Jewish kitchens. That wouldn’t work with cheese pancakes because of kosher laws prohibiting the mixing of dairy and meat. That gave potatoes an in. And once they became popular in Eastern Europe, it didn’t take long before they replaced cheese as the new normal.

These days, trendy latkes are in vogue; new cookbooks include beet latkes with goat cheese and chives, and sweet potato and butternut squash latkes with smoky harissa and labneh.

Mindy Myers, founder of Cooking Round the World,  an East Bay-based culinary program that offers classes at the JCC of San Francisco, recently taught a workshop called “Latkes of the Rich and Famous.” While Myers claimed during her program to have the recipes for Ben Stiller’s carrot-zucchini latkes, Jerry Seinfeld’s pasta latkes, Joan Rivers’ curried sweet potato latkes and Barbra Streisand’s apple and pear sauce recipe, she said it was all meant to be tongue-in-cheek.

“Ben Stiller did not call me up and give me his latke recipe,” she admitted.

Her pasta latke, though, is a real thing. Myers said it might be her most unusual version, combining zucchini and spices with cooked spaghetti. It makes for a very crispy pancake.

Everyone seems to have a secret for making the best potato latkes.

“Frederick the Great of Prussia examines the potato harvest” painting by Robert Warthmuller (1886)

Albala squeezes the water out of the grated potatoes, discards it and then puts the starch left at the bottom of the bowl into the batter. “I think getting the water out and adding the starch back in really makes a difference in making them really crispy, as there’s nothing worse than a soggy latke,” he said. He also doesn’t salt his latkes until they are cooked.

Bloom says Wise Sons might sell 100 latkes on a weekend day; he estimates that between the restaurant, catering business and office delivery, he and his staff will make close to 10,000 latkes this season. “It’s amazing how many we sell over the holidays. I guess people don’t like to make them at home because they do stink up the kitchen,” he said.

Wise Sons uses the traditional russet potato, and not only is salting key throughout the process (“You always need more than you think,” he said), each latke is fried twice.

“First they get griddled like pancakes, and then they’re fried to order, which makes them extra crispy,” Bloom said. “My partner and I went through different iterations and ultimately we’re trying to stick as closely to the way our parents and grandparents did it.” He just bought a new piece of equipment to shred potatoes.

Making hundreds of latkes for Hanukkah parties is “a pretty interesting process for us,” said Michael Siegel, owner-chef of Shorty Goldstein’s in San Francisco. His tip is to run the shredded potatoes (he also uses russets) under lightly running water to rid them of excess starch before mixing the batter together, “which helps them not be on the gummier side.”

Latkes from Shorty Goldstein’s in San Francisco

While Siegel has experimented with the sweet potato and other root veggies for special events, he says Hanukkah is not the time for novelty, because people want the tried-and-true. He noted that sugar and moisture content of the vegetable in question have to be taken into account, since both will affect the crispiness of the latke. Like Wise Sons, Siegel also fries them twice, just like a French fry.

For Peter Levitt, co-owner of Saul’s Deli in Berkeley, the most important thing is that “each sliver of potato has to maintain its integrity and fry independently — we want to see those pieces of potato and onion.

“When mixing the batter, don’t exert too much hand pressure, and don’t make it into a cake batter where everything is the same. People tend to overwork it, or speed up when they’re pre-mashing the onions and potatoes together. That’s definitely a no-no.”

While latkes are often traditionally made with matzah meal, Ruth Lefkowitz goes for brown rice flour to make her gluten-free version. Owner of Cotati-based Ruthy’s Real Meals, a home-delivery and takeout business, Lefkowitz grew up in a kosher home and remembers her grandmother using a wire grater that looked like a tennis racquet to make latkes. She has one like it in her kitchen, but it’s more for nostalgic purposes. In fact, she says, she’s “never seen anyone [else] use one like that.”

Lefkowitz likes to add parsley or thyme to her latkes. Also, given where she lives, she loves to go apple-picking before Hanukkah, so she can make her own applesauce. When customers order her latkes, they get a side of her house-made applesauce to go with them.

“When it comes to latkes,” said Lefkowitz, “I’m all about the applesauce.”


Digging up a fact or two

The first book published in English about a single food item was “The History and Social Influence of the Potato” by Redcliffe N. Salaman, in 1949. More recently, Larry Zuckerman revisited the topic in 1999 with “The Potato: How the Humble Spud Rescued the Western World.” Zuckerman’s book, which covers the potato’s story in England, Ireland, France and the United States, ignores Eastern Europe, although he did note that the Russian peasantry believed potatoes caused cholera, a myth that lasted until the mid-19th century.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."