Jewish Food a Profound and Personal Link to the Past

While Hanukkah may be a minor holiday, its emphasis on fried foods makes it one of the most popular.

While potato latkes are forever linked with Hanukkah, along with dreidels and menorahs, the potato part of potato latkes is actually a fairly recent invention in the history of Judaism.

Who knew?

Originally made with cheese, latkes are now made with an assortment of vegetables. What's important is frying them in oil, symbolizing the miracle of the oil that lasted for eight days when Jews recaptured the Holy Temple in Jerusalem in 165 B.C.

While Hanukkah may be a minor holiday, its emphasis on fried foods makes it one of the most popular, say Jewish culinary experts.

"Any holiday that prescribes serving fried foods is guaranteed for success," said Matthew Goodman, former food columnist for the Jewish newspaper The Forward and author of "Jewish Food: The World at Table," which has recipes and essays about Jewish food, history and culture from India to Mexico.

The predominant potato latke is an Ashkenazi, or Eastern European, tradition that began with the farming of potatoes in the mid-19th century, Goodman said. Before that, Jews made latkes from buckwheat, and long before that, cheese.


As recounted in the apocryphal Book of Judith, the fetching young widow Judith fed Assyrian general Holofernes salty cheese so that he would drink wine to quench his thirst. Taking advantage of his stupor, she cut off his head, allowing the Jews to defeat the leaderless Assyrians.

Cheese latkes fell out of favor when Jews moved to Eastern Europe, where frying them in animal fat was more common but violated kosher dietary laws against mixing meat with dairy products -- hence the switch to buckwheat and eventually potatoes.

"Hanukkah is a celebration of oil," Goodman said, "it's not a celebration of potatoes."

Whether made with potatoes, beets, eggplant or corn -- depending on the local crops used by the Jewish diaspora -- latkes are universally loved.

"A delicious latke, there is nothing like it," said Levana Kirschenbaum, author of the new "Levana Cooks Dairy Free!: Natural and Delicious Recipes for Your Favorite Forbidden Foods," and owner of Levana Restaurant in New York.

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