Ah, the holiday season! Snowflakes, festive lights and, of course, the lingering smell of fried potatoes in every article of clothing you own. For Jewish people around the world, the holidays mean Chanukah, and Chanukah means latkes. Believe it or not, latkes weren’t always made of potatoes. If you think about it, there are not a lot of Middle Eastern recipes that call for this starchy crop that thrives in cold winters. So if latkes weren’t originally made from potatoes, what were they made of?
Back in the time of Judah the Maccabee, pancakes were made of a hard, salty cheese similar to ricotta salata. Yes, you read that correctly—the original latkes were made out of cheese. Rooted in Italian custom, Jewish people in the Mediterranean first celebrated the festival of Chanukah with a cheese-battered pancake.
Rumor has it that the cheese pancake was based on the Book of Judith. In the story, Judith served salty fried cheese pancakes and wine to an Assyrian army general, waited until he was drunk and asleep and then killed him to help save the Israelites’ land. Although the story of Judith is not related to Chanukah, some believe that Judith was Judah’s aunt, while others says Judith’s bravery and heroism echoes the story of the Maccabees. Either way, the salty fried cheese pancake tradition was born.
So when did the tradition of cheese latkes stop and the potato latke story begin? The word latke is a Yiddish word, probably giving you a few hints as to where this fried potato tradition originated. Ashkenazi Jews started making potato pancakes as part of the festival of Chanukah during the mid-1800s. Mass planting of potatoes in Eastern Europe made potatoes cheap and accessible, thus starting the potato pancake tradition of Chanukah. Originally, latkes were potato scraps fried in chicken fat (or schmaltz); later on, people turned to frying them in margarine, butter or oil.
Today latkes are exclusively known as potato pancakes eaten during Chanukah. Rarely, if ever, do you see latkes listed on a menu only to be served a cheese pancake. (If that has ever happened to you, please let me know.) While many countries and cultures have their own potato pancake, such as the Irish boxty, the Polish placki ziemniaczane, the Swedish rarakor, the Korean gamja-jeon and so on, the latke will forever be the Jewish one.
The only aspect of the latke as we know it that is reminiscent of the actual Chanukah story is the fact that they are fried in oil. Other than that, latkes are just plain delicious and a traditional treat for Jewish families all over the world.