There are no cultural differences when it comes to the fragrance of cooking latkes, whether they’re the ones most of us grew up with or the ones I learned to make recently with my neighbor Rachel. Raised in a traditional Korean household, she married a Jewish man, and their two girls were raised Jewish. My daughter has been friends with hers almost since birth—23 years ago. Our families have eaten together often, probably every kind of food we could cook or order, including many dinners of traditional Korean or Jewish food. This year, I asked Rachel if she had ever made Korean latkes. Last year she sent me a recipe for Korean haroset, so I wondered whether there was such a thing as Korean potato pancakes. It turns out there is—they are known as gamja jeon.
“It was a favorite afternoon snack we ate in the winter,” Rachel remarked as we made her recipe the day after Thanksgiving last month. She has eaten my latkes and made her own traditional ones, but even her children admitted she had never attempted the Korean version of latkes. “I don’t know why I never made these,” she mused as we set out the necessary ingredients, which included not only potatoes, onion and oil, but also spring onions and kimchi.
There are similarities and differences I found in both the ingredients and preparation and the taste. One noticeable difference was the texture of the pancakes. The inside of the finished latkes is chewy or sticky, resembling rice or cellophane noodles in texture, likely due to the way the potatoes are grated and the fact that they include potato starch.
When we grated the raw potatoes for Korean latkes we had to use the very smallest holes of the grater. The result was that the raw potatoes are actually a creamy consistency, almost resembling mashed potatoes. It was more labor intensive than grating potatoes for my latkes. When we tried to use the food processor, even fitted with a specialty fine grating disc, it pulsed as it attempted to turn the potatoes into the pasty looking mush, yet the outcome was not quite right. Next we went to the hand-grated method. Fortunately, we shared the labor with our daughters, “the girls,” who were learning right along with me.
Another difference was that instead of being paired with a sweet topping like applesauce or even the tangy flavor of sour cream, Korean latkes are served with a soy and sesame seed dipping sauce. “Koreans like savory food,” Rachel observed. The pancakes we made paired well with the salty soy sauce; we added chopped green spring onions to one batch and to another we stirred in chopped homemade kimchi. The green onions and kimchi energized the pancakes with color and crunchy flavor.
The similarity had to do with the cooking method. We used olive oil, though any type of vegetable oil can be used to fry them until they turn golden brown and crispy around the edges. Most Koreans make one large pancake, though we fried up small ones to share. The other similarity: between the two families, none remained after our meal.
As we stood around watching the potato mash fry to golden crisp pancakes, I was surprised to learn that unlike in China, there really are no Korean Jews, except for the Jews in the expat or military communities, probably because Korea was almost the Asian end of the Silk Road. The Talmud, however, is a very popular book in Korea, perhaps because its wisdom and common sense advice appeals to the people of all cultures. According to an account in the New Yorker, in 2011, the South Korean ambassador to Israel said on Israeli public television that “each Korean family has at least one copy of the Talmud.”
For me, learning to make these new kind of latkes was an exercise in exploring another culture, inventing something new and bringing together my traditional heritage and the traditions of Rachel’s Korean kitchen. It was exciting to try something new—to add to the global food phenomenon that is sweeping our world.