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Food & Drink

Hanukkah: A brief culinary history

Photo: Miriam Sitz, License: N/A

Miriam Sitz

You can make traditional latkes at home or enjoy a sweet potato version from Green Vegetarian Restaurant (above)


Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights–and food and drink–begins this year on the evening of Wednesday, November 27, and lasts through the evening of Thursday, December 5. The holiday, which has given rise to a host of culinary customs, celebrates the rededication of the Jewish temple and the Macabee victory over the Seleucids in the second century BC.

Tradition holds that after the Judean rebel group called the Macabees defeated the oppressive Seleucid Empire (a Greek regime that forbade Jewish religious practice), the warriors triumphantly reentered Jerusalem to ritually cleanse the temple. The Maccabees found only one sealed, uncontaminated jug of oil–enough to sustain the Menorah for a single day. Miraculously, the small amount of oil kept the lamp burning for eight days, long enough for more to be obtained. “Hanukkah celebrates the bravery of the Maccabees, but it’s also a holiday that celebrates religious freedom and the right to worship in peace,” explained Claudia Stokes, associate professor of English at Trinity University and member of Temple Beth-El.

For Ashkenazi Jews, those of Central and Eastern European descent, oil plays a central role in Hanukkah, as reflected in many of the traditional holiday foods.

Latkes, the quintessential Hanukkah food, are simple and delicious fried potato patties topped with sour cream or applesauce. Green Vegetarian will serve a sweet potato latke at their Thanksgiving meal, topped with a tasty vegan sour cream. Trader Joe’s sells frozen potato and matzo meal latkes, as well as those of the sweet potato variety.

This basic latke recipe is adapted from cookbook author and cultural anthropologist Claudia Roden.

Latkes
2 pounds potatoes
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 onion, grated
2 tablespoons flour or matzo meal
oil, for frying

Peel and finely grate the potatoes. Put them straight into cold water, then drain and squeeze dry, removing all starchy liquid. Beat the eggs lightly with salt, add to the potatoes, add in onions and matzo and stir well. Coat a frying pan with oil and heat. Drop spoonfuls of the mixture into the hot oil. Flatten the fritters and lower the heat. Brown one side, then the other. Remove and serve very hot.

The versatile potato pancake has been used in myriad ways, including in eggs benedict. Just add a poached egg, sliver of salmon and hollandaise sauce to the basic latke and voilà: Hanukkah brunch.

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