Hanukkah may be the festival of lights, but it’s no secret that latkes are heavy. Hot, crispy, oily and often topped with sour cream or applesauce, the potato pancake served throughout the week is a highlight on the Jewish culinary calendar.
While the traditional version consists of little more than shredded potatoes, onions, egg and oil, modern renditions have swapped potatoes for other root vegetables such as beets and celeriac and incorporated nontraditional ingredients like scallions and kimchi. Luckily, there are eight days of Hanukkah to try them all.
While not mentioned in any Jewish scripture, Hanukkah and its foods play a major role in many Jewish cookbooks. Besides being a pretty good excuse to wage war on your cholesterol, there is historical symbolism surrounding the oil that is used to fry latkes, doughnuts and other Hanukkah delicacies.
The story of Hanukkah goes that after improbably winning a war against a cruel and oppressive Syrian-Greek regime in the 2nd century BC, the Jews went to Jerusalem to reclaim their Temple. Upon finding a menorah (or candelabra) to light in honor of the re-dedication of the Temple, they discovered they only had enough (olive) oil to keep it lit for one day. Miraculously, the light burned for eight days, symbolizing yet another act of divine providence. So, we eat latkes and doughnuts fried in oil to celebrate the miracle of the light that burned for seven days longer than it should have.
There are many ways to indulge in the celebration that begins on the evening of December 16 and lasts until sundown on December 24. Here are a few ideas:
- If you’re looking to get the most bang for your buck, you might want to start your week off right with the 6th Annual Latke Festival on Monday, December 15, at Metropolitan Pavilion. This potato fest encourages creative interpretations of the traditional pancake, and over 20 restaurants will bring their best latke game to compete. Look out for a smoky poblano latke with 16-hour Texas smoked brisket from Tres Carnes; caraway-spiked latke with brats, beer mustard and crispy onion from Joseph Leonard; and Japanese sweet potato and crispy chestnut latkes in duck fat with miso crème fraîche and yuzu from PRINT. Esteemed judges include: Adam Sachs, editor in chief of Saveur; Joan Nathan, Author of Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France; and Marion Nestle, Author and Paulette Goddard Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at NYU. There will also be doughnuts by Dough plus wine and beer. Net proceeds will benefit The Sylvia Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to teaching children how to cook and eat well.
- Dine the next day at Porsena, where Louisa Shafia, author of The New Persian Kitchen and Lucid Food, is teaming up with chef Sara Jenkins of Porsena and Porchetta for a Persian Hanukkah dinner. The meal features pumpkin cilantro latkes, lamb stew with pistachios and rose water and lots of olive oil from Sara Jenkins’s family olive oil farm in Tuscany.
- Have your own party with all the provisions pre-made from Russ & Daughters.
- Or Shelsky’s in Brooklyn
- Or attempt to make your own latkes using a classic recipe from Adam Rappaport, editor in chief of Bon Appétit.
Sweet or savory, oily or schmaltzy, enjoy the week of Hanukkah to reflect on the miracle of oil, especially when added to potatoes.