Latkes are potato pancakes which Jews consider a national dish, as do Lithuanians, Russians, Belarusians, Ukrainians, Germans, Czechs and the Swiss. The first mention of the potato dish seems to come from 1830 and seems to have been German cuisine. although the word itself comes into Yiddish probably from Russian. Whatever the case, Jews made latkes global and it is a required part of the Hanukkah table now.
Some sources say latkes were originally made of buckwheat. Others put their origins in Italy where pancakes were served with ricotta cheese. Rabbi Kalonymus ben Kalonymus (1286-1328) seems to be the first person to associate pancakes with Hanukkah, in a poem about the holiday.
When Spain expelled the Jews of Sicily in 1492, they took their ricotta cheese pancakes with them and introduced them to the Jews in the northern Italian lands. These pancakes reportedly were called cassola in Rome.
So how come potatoes are used now and cheese isn’t? Potatoes came to be used in Poland and the Ukraine as grain stores ran out and when potatoes became widely cultivated. Making pancakes out of potatoes is simpler than preparing pancakes from flour with cheese and so a new tradition was born.
Latkes are made of grated potato. We’ve been having a bit of a debate at the Bagel Shop Café on whether the grated potato should be thickly grated or as thin as possible. Neither recipe has yielded to the other yet. The important thing is to use lots of oil, and don’t forget the onion, and to serve the latkes with cranberry sauce or homemade apple jam. In fact you can add grated zucchini or even beets to the grated potato mix.
by Dovilė Rūkaitė