Everybody loves potato latkes. No matter how many different kinds of pancakes I make for Hanukkah each year—zucchini, carrot, sweet-potato and curry, cauliflower, spinach, or zucchini—the simple potato ones, sizzled in oil until they’re crispy, disappear first.
Before the potato was brought to Europe from the New World, Jews ate fried sweets at Hanukkah: the doughnuts we now know as sufganiyot, or levivot (simple flour or matzoh-meal pancakes). Both fried in oil, they remind us of Hanukkah’s miracle, when one day’s worth of oil lasted for eight days in the Temple in Jerusalem. But after the potato became popular in Europe in the 18th century, the potato latke—coming from the Ukrainian latka for pancake—became a humble and homey holiday tradition.
Joan Nathan is Tablet Magazine’s food columnist and the author of 10 cookbooks including King Solomon’s Table: a Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World.