There’s More Than One Way To Fry A Potato

There’s More Than One Way To Fry A Potato

So I do not have to continuously answer the question, why didn’t you write an article about latkes this Chanukah (חֲנֻכָּה), I am bending to foreseeable future public pressure and putting my latkes out there for all to see. As we all know, there are a few foods and dishes that have become traditionally associated with Chanukah:  latkes (potato pancakes) are obviously the “big one,” but anything made in or with oil (to symbolize the miracle), sofganiyot (jelly donuts), loukoumades (honey puffs), dairy (to remember Judith), and some consider brisket a Chanukah must have.  But there is no halachah (הֲלָכָה: Jewish law) for what to eat, and the traditional foods were passed on from generation to generation. A few years ago I celebrated the diversity of these foods with a menu based on oil and cheese that have its roots in European origins. My “A Taste of Europe” Chanukah menu included spanakopita (Greek) as one of the hors d’œuvres; faux black truffle frittata (French) and sweet noodle kugel (German) and English pea salad as side dishes.  The main entrées included blintz soufflé (Russian/Slavic); penne alla vodka (Italian); and three different types of potato pancakes: traditional latkes/leviot (לביבה), boxty (Irish), and rårakor (Swedish).

Potato Pancakes – Latkes from Around the World

What you might have found interesting about my menu is that three different types of potato pancakes are listed.  When most American Jews think of potato pancakes, they think of the deliciously oily potato usually found in the shape of a flattened ball, although not as flat as a pancake one would eat for breakfast. The way a potato pancake is prepped, cooked, and even the items that garnish it, have regional and cultural differences.

Variations of potato pancakes include:

  • Boxty – This Irish classic is prepared with a mix of both raw and finely grated potato and mashed potatoes, then flour, baking soda, buttermilk, onions, and egg are added to the “batter” before frying. It can be served with a wide variety of toppings, such as jellies and jams.
  • Bramborák – This is sometimes called a Czeck pancake and is distinguished for being prepared with grated potatoes, and contains breadcrumbs in its mixture; in addition, it is seasoned with regional spices such as garlic, marjoram, and caraway seeds. Some variations combine smoked meats, dough, and sour kraut into the mixture itself before cooking.
  • Gamjajeon – This is made in Korea by pan frying finely grated potatoes with a vegetable until golden brown.
  • Hash Browns – Yes, this a type of a potato pancake, it is a fried shredded potato mixture, but may not be made in the shape of a pancake.  It is prepared, cooked, and shaped, in many variations throughout homes and diners throughout North America. Home fries are are usually an alternate to home fries in an American diner, but made with larger pieces of potato (takes less time to prepare), but almost never made in the form of a pancake.
  • Latka Gravas – An amusing character on the hit TV series Taxi, played by Andy Kaufman, and based on a character he had created for his stand-up routine.
  • Latkes (לאַטקע) – Latkes are made of grated potatoes, eggs, and onions (and sometimes with flour). They are traditionally served with apple sauce, sour cream, and sometimes with heap of sugar.
  • Lefse – This is more of a flatbread (very flat pancake) than a latke, but it made (in Norway) in the same fashion as potato pancakes (potatoes, flour, butter, and cream), but first rolled out, then cooked on a griddle
  • MücverA Turkish pancake or fritter made with zucchini or potatoes, added with egg, onion, dill, cheese, and flour.
  • Placki – Also known as a Polish pancake, is a close cousin of the latke, which is a fried potato mixture made with onion, eggs, wheat flour, and potatoes.  Although it may be eaten like a latke with sour cream or apple sauce, it is more traditionally served with some type of a meat sauce, or even a cottage cheese.
  • Rårakor – Sweden brings us a very thin pancake created with shredded potatoes, flour, milk, and egg before adding to the fryer. It can be served with lingonberry jam
  • ReibekuchenThese are potato pancakes made and served in Germany and may be served with pumpernickel bread or apple sauce.
  • Rösti – Another Swiss variation that does not contain eggs or flour. I had this at a Swiss/Norwegian restaurant, and it was served with gravlax (cured salmon) and a dill cream.


History of Potatoes

You cannot make potato pancakes without potatoes.  Potatoes are a variety of vegetables called tubers (tuberous) in the solanium tuberosum family.  They were first cultivated between 7,000 and 10,000 years ago in the area of Peru by the ancient Incans. Potatoes were not introduced into Europe until the Spanish first conquered areas of South America and brought them back with them.  It is believed that potatoes may have first been brought to (or at least first cultivated in) Ireland by Sir Walter Raleigh in 1589. By the mid-1700s, they had become a staple crop in many areas of the Continent. Potatoes had become such a major part of the Irish diet that when a disease affected potato plants in the 1840, it led to famine in which a million people in Ireland died and another million left the country. The potato had not reached colonial North America for almost three decades after it traveled to Europe.  The first known potatoes being transported into the United Stated occurred in 1621 when the Governor of Bermuda (Nathaniel Butler) sent a shipment to Governor Francis Wyatt of Virginia.  The first potato farm was not established in the States until 1719 in Derry, NH [no connection with the fictional Derry, Maine].

Some interesting potato facts:

  • “French” fries were first introduced in the US by Thomas Jefferson (from 1784 to 1790 he was the U.S. trade commissioner and subsequuently minister to Franc) when he served them in the White House during his presidency from 1801-1809.
  • When potatoes were first introduced in Europe, the aristocracy did not like the way they looked, and thought of them as being an unsuitable food for people in their position, and therefore this vegetable was relegated to be eaten by the peasants.
  • Potato chips were created when a railroad magnate (Cornelius Vanderbilt) complained that his potatoes were too thick.  His chef (George Crum) sliced them really thin, fried them in oil, and topped with salt, and the much loved snack (originally named “Saratoga Crunch Chips”) was born.
  • The potato was so much of a staple to the Irish diet in the 1700s that Irish men would grow their thumb nails long in order to more easily peel the potatoes.
  • Potatoes were one of the first vegetables grown in space, when they were grown as part of an experiment in 1995.
  • The term “couch potato” may have originated with the disdain of the British towards the Irish.  They thought that the Irish, who ate mostly potatoes, did nothing but eat, sleep, and reproduce. Therefore began calling the potato the “lazy root.”

Why Eat Fried Foods on Chanukah?

Chanukah is an eight day holiday that commemorates the defeat of the Greek-Syrian army in 186 BCE by a band of rebellious Jews (known as the Maccabees). When the city of Jerusalem was liberated, the Maccabees entered the Holy Temple to clean it up (it was converted into a shrine for Zeus).  They discovered only a small amount of olive oil was remaining to light the golden menorah. It was enough to last one day, however, the menorah stayed lit for eight days (which was, coincidently, the amount of time needed to make more oil). It is for this miracle that Jews around the world celebrate and what a better way of celebrating, than with eating. [Fast fact: although there are no rules or laws that pertain to what a Jewish person should eat on this holiday, there is a rule that they are forbidden to fast during these eight days.]

To commemorate the miracle of the oil lasting eight days, throughout the years Jews from different regions of the world began making dishes made with oil to commemorate the oil used to light the menorah.  Many of these dishes were influenced by the types of ingredients available in their region. For instance, sufganiyot (a fried dough with jelly; jelly donuts) became the traditional food in Turkey and some countries of North Africa.  Around the Northern Mediterranean, chicken and vegetables fried in oil became the popular way to celebrate.  Potatoes, which were more abundant and cheaper in Eastern Europe, became the ingredient to be fried in oil, and to memorialize the holiday.  The fried potato latkes that come from that region are called latkes, which in Hebrew is levivot (לביבות).

History of Latkes and Why Eat Latkes on Chanukah?

The tradition of eating latkes for Chanukah began in Europe. For those of you that paid attention to the paragraphs above, you may deduce that the making of potato latkes, which has become so much integrated into the holiday, did not begin for hundreds of years after the holiday itself began.  The miracle of Chanukah occurred in 186 BCE, yet potatoes were not first introduced into Europe until almost the early 1500s.  This is not to say that the holiday was not celebrated with frying foods in oil until then, they just put other items into the fryer instead.

Even after potatoes first made their way into Northern Europe, latkes did not automatically become a dish to be associated with Chanukah.  This is because another Chanukah tradition was in conflict with the oil used to fry this tasty morsel.  This other tradition is to eat dairy, in honor of the heroics of a Jewish woman named Judith (from the Book of Judith).

Side Story – Judith.  She was a beautiful Jewish woman whom seduced an Assyrian General (Holofernes), then caused him pass out from wine and cheese. While he was incapacitated, she decapitated him. His death delayed the Assyrian attack on the Israelites, and subsequently allowed the Jewish army the needed time to mount their own attack dispersing and defeating their aggressors. [Note: I intend on delving into the Book of Judith in much greater during a future blog.]

The issue in following this other tradition (historically, the story of Judith may have been the precursor to the story of the Maccabees) is that since vegetable/olive oils were hard to produce in the north, they used animal fats for frying, which makes the latkes non-dairy (and Jews cannot mix meat and dairy).  Until the Northern Europeans began obtaining a greater amount of non-meat oils, either the holiday meal was ca non-dairy celebration, or one without latkes.

Latkes (without potatoes) were eaten in Europe to celebrate Chanukah long before the potato set its eyes on the Continent.  The oldest known recollection of pancakes cooked in association with the holiday is found in the writings of Rabbi Kalonymus (from Italy) who wrote about pancakes made with ricotta cheese made to celebrate Purim and Chanukah during the late thirteenth century. This dish (or versions of it) made its way to other Jewish communities throughout Europe.  Later, when vegetable oils were more abundant in northern Europe, they modified the dish to include the very abundant potato, and the tradition we now know and love was created.

The latke itself, as a dish, had also been separately developed by other cultures whom enjoyed the taste of fried potatoes, and many regions around the world have their own special spin on how they are cooked (see list of dishes above).  The term for latke also have many possible origins, including the Russian/Ukaranian word latka, which translates to “patch.” The Hebrew word for latke is leviva, which is mentioned in the Book of Samuel, and refers to a dumpling made from kneaded dough. In another Cryllic connection, the old Russian word oladka is derived from the Greek word eladion which means “a little oily thing.” So there are many cultures that have a possible claim on its origin.

Potato pancakes are a food which has just as many European origins to match the diversity of cultures that have made it their own.   However if one wants to really go back to the earliest origins of this dish, one would have to look at place where the potato was first cultivated.  South Americans were enjoying the taste of dishes like Ecuadorian llapingachos (stuffed potato pancakes) or Chilean milcaos (fried and baked potatoes) centuries before the Europeans were asking “do you want chips with that fish”?

The Latke – Hamantashen Debate

One cannot write a serious dissertation on Latkes and not mention the Latkes – Hamantashen debate.  Since 1949, at the University of Chicago, an annual debate has been conducted amongst academics, historians, and other notable individuals on the merits of both of these traditional holiday dishes. These humorous debates are usually conducted in the format of a symposium, and have included many distinguished speakers throughout the years.

And here you have it, my article, and following recipe on latkes

The Recipe

Although I love a traditional potato latke (I prefer it with apple sauce), I thought I would provide my readers with something a bit different, a latke that you can eat not only as a side dish, but as a sweet dessert, the Sweetato Latka, which provides the taste buds with a delicious explosion of sweet potatoes, apples, cinnamon, and brown sugar.

Ingredients (Serves 8)

2 large potatoes

2 medium sweet potatoes

2 medium apples

2 1/2 cups veg. oil

¼ cup melted butter

1 egg (beaten)

2 tbl all-purpose flour

1 tsp salt

3 tbl ground cinnamon

3 tbl brown sugar

½ tsp ground black pepper

1 bag marshmallows [optional]


Step #1: Finely grate potatoes (both kinds) and apples into a large bowl. Drain off as much liquid as possible (e.g., use a strainer of cheese cloth)

Step # 2: Add in melted butter, egg, flour, salt, and black pepper, 2 tbl cinnamon, and 2 tbl brown sugar. Add enough flour to make mixture thick, about 2 to 4 tablespoons all together.

Step #3: Heat up the oil in a large pan. Prepare a plate covered with paper towels. [If you are adding marshmallows, also grease up a baking sheet and preheat the oven to 225 degrees.]

Step #4: Make pancakes out of the batter (either created a flat pancake and add to the oil, or roll into a small ball, and flatten one it is in the oil).

Step #5: Fry for about 3 minutes on each side (they should be a golden brown).

Step #6: As latkes are finished, either place them onto the towel-covered plate and sprinkle the remaining cinnamon and brown sugar on top of the latkes (and cover with tin foil), or if you are melting marshmallows, place them on the baking sheet.

Step #7: For marshmallows: place marshmallows on top of each latke, then add also sprinkle on the remaining cinnamon and brown sugar.  Place into preheated oven for 3-4 minutes, or until marshmallows begin melting (but before they burn). Once done, place them onto the paper-towel covered plate (and cover with tin foil).

Step #8: Transfer latkes to a serving dish and serve warm.

Keep Cooking,

Chef Lon





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