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Where Latkes Came From and 8 Other Facts About Hanukkah Foods

Where Latkes Came From and 8 Other Facts About Hanukkah Foods

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Scrumptious foods are a central part of favorite family holidays, whether they have religious significance or not. Hanukkah is no exception.

Hanukkah is the eight-day Jewish holiday that begins on the eve of the 25th day of the Jewish month Kislev — December 16 this year — celebrated to commemorate the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in the second century B.C.E. Hanukkah, which means “dedication” in Hebrew, is often called the Festival of Lights, because the holiday is celebrated with the lighting of the menorah (a nine-branched candelabra, with room for one candle for each day, plus a candle with which to light the others).

Where Latkes Came From and 8 Other Facts About Hanukkah Food (Slideshow)

The events that inspired Hanukkah occurred at a time of oppression of the Jewish people by Syrian-Greeks who ruled the Holy Land. Eventually, a small band of militant Jewish dissidents, called the Maccabees, were able to expel the Greeks and reclaim the Holy Temple. When the victors sought to light the Temple’s menorah, there was only a single cruse of olive oil, enough for one day. Miraculously, though, it burned for eight days until new oil could be prepared and purified.

To memorialize the miracle, the Jewish sages began the festival of Hanukkah. At the heart of the festival is the nightly menorah lighting, beginning with a single flame on the first night and ending eight nights later with all the lights lit.

The culinary traditions associated with Hanukkah actually do have meaning rooted in religious observance — the fritters, the cheese-filled pastries, and even those delectable chocolate coins. Many of those yummy eats that we love have complex and interesting histories of their own.

Like many other holidays across the globe, Hanukkah is a family affair. It’s a time to come together, share food, and celebrate blessings, while passing on and creating new traditions. Communal meals during the eight days of Hanukkah are an important custom and friends who quarreled during the year are meant to reconcile at these meals. Hanukkah is the Festival of Lights, a testament to the long-lasting light that came from that small amount of oil. Foods fit for the holiday are cooked in oil to celebrate the miracle that took place during the rededication of the Holy Temple of Jerusalem. Bring on the apple fritters, vegetable pancakes, and sweet doughnuts.

What’s a holiday without delicious food? And it’s definitely a plus when that holiday calls for fried food and cheese. Really, who could resist cheese-filled doughnuts?


According to legend, Judith, a pious widow, played an integral role in the liberation of the Jews. In pretending to surrender to her captors, she met Holofernes, the governor of Syrians. Attracted by her beauty, he invited her to his tent. There, she offered him cheese to make him thirsty and wine to appease his thirst. But the wine induced drowsiness, and while he slept, Judith beheaded him, which weakened the enemy and led to the historic victory of the Jews. Essentially, it was cheese that led to the downfall of the Syrian-Greeks. Cheesecake, blintzes, and other cheese-centric dishes have made their way to many Hanukkah celebrations as a result.

Hanukkah Gelt

You can play dreidel for them, or eat them straight out of the bag; those gold foil-wrapped chocolate coins are yet another delicious Hanukkah treat. The roots of gelt, Yiddish for “money,” are in the first coins minted by the Jews after the Maccabees gained independence. These first coins were stamped with an image of a menorah, perhaps to signify the miracle at the rededication. In the eighteenth century, it was customary to show religious teachers appreciation with a monetary token around Hanukkah. However, by the nineteenth century, the traditional recipients had shifted from teachers to children. Now savings bonds, checks, and chocolate coins are manifestations of Hanukkah gelt.

The History of Hanukkah

Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights, dates back to 167 BCE. The story is based largely off of legend, as few historical details remain.

At the time, the Jews were living in Israel, under the control of the Syrian-Greek king Antiochus Epiphanes. Antiochus' reign brought with it a violent attempt to force the Jews in the kingdom to assimilate to Greek cultural norms.

The breaking point came in 165 BCE, when Antiochus placed an altar to Zeus in the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. A group of brothers, called the Maccabees, led a revolt against Antiochus and liberated the temple, getting rid of the idols that Antiochus had installed there.

When the Maccabees took the temple, they cleansed it, building a new altar to replace the old one. The menorah was to be lit and stay lit continuously through the night, but there was only enough olive oil to last a single day.

Miraculously, the single day's worth of oil burned over the course of 8 days, long enough for new oil to be brought to the temple so the menorah could stay lit, and the temple was rededicated to Judaism.

Upon the temple's rededication, the Maccabees decided to celebrate (belatedly) the harvest festival of Sukkot — due to Antiochus' having defiled the temple, the temple had been unusable for that year's Sukkot. They then instituted an annual winter holiday to commemorate the rededication of the temple and the miracle of the oil.

The oil plays a big role in the traditional foods of Hanukkah foods cooked in oil (often olive oil, but chicken fat in parts of Eastern Europe where olives were hard to come by) are a major part of the celebration.

The two mainstays of Hanukkah food are the latke (a potato pancake fried in oil) and sufganiot (oil-fried jelly donuts).

13 Fascinating Hanukkah Facts That Everyone Should Know

Once a year, people get together to celebrate the Festival of Lights. Sure, you're familiar with families coming together to light a menorah at this time, but there's so much to the religious holiday you may not know. In fact, when you dive into the history of Hanukkah, what each tradition means and how it's celebrated across the world, you may just learn a thing or two that will surprise you. Including the spelling &mdash spoiler alert: both Hanukkah and Chanukah are correct!

The Jewish Festival of Lights begins on December 10 and ends on December 18 this year. So once you've got your blue, white and silver Hanukkah decorations and menorah candles picked out, read up on the story of Hanukkah and get ready to eat some delicious latkes. Whether this is your first time celebrating, you're brushing up on holiday knowledge or you just want some fun fact to drop as you light the first candle, here are some fascinating Hanukkah facts that you probably haven't heard before.

Hanukkah celebrates the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem during the second century B.C., according to Legend says that when a leader outlawed Judaism back then, a group of Jews revolted. It became known as the Maccabean Revolt.

Remember the re-dedication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem? That's where the holy day gets its name. In Hebrew, Hanukkah means "dedication."

They needed to burn a candelabra for eight days in order to rededicate their temple. According to NPR, they only had enough oil to burn the candle for one night. But miraculously, the oil lasted long enough for them to reclaim the temple.

On each night of the holiday, one additional candle (starting from the right side) is lit from the center "Shamash" candle, according to Chabad. In total, 44 candles are lit throughout Hanukkah, but most candle packages for your menorah will come with the right amount.

Because the Hebrew calendar is lunisolar, Hanukkah isn't on the same date every year. The celebration always begins on the 25th of Kislev, meaning it typically falls in November or December of the Gregorian calendar &mdash the same season as Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Instead, children often receive gelt (a.k.a. money) from the adults, as Live Science says. Chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil, used in the traditional Jewish game of dreidel, are also called gelt.

Dreidels are four-sided spinning tops with a Hebrew letter printed on each side representing the phrase "A Great Miracle Happened There," My Jewish Learning says. Each player spins the dreidel &mdash then depending on the letter it falls on, they either win or lose varied amounts of gelt.

It's all because the holiday celebrates oil. The most popular recipes include latkes (fried potato pancakes), according to My Jewish Learning. Flavors can range from sweet to salty, and they're often served with applesauce or sour cream.

One of the most popular dishes are homemade doughnuts called sufganiyot. Traditionally they're filled with jelly, though some creative recipes add chocolate or caramel.

The latter is the most popular variation nowadays. According to, there are multiple ways of spelling it because of transliteration, which is when you translate a language that uses different characters or symbols into another language. The name of the Jewish holiday comes from Hebrew, so the spelling doesn&rsquot have an exact equivalent in English.

The Maccabean Revolt occurred after the Torah was written, so neither Hanukkah nor the events that led to it are in the sacred book, according to Other Jewish holidays like Passover and Rosh Hashanah typically have more importance.

In 1993, Jeff Hoffman brought a travel-size menorah and spun a dreidel while on the Space Shuttle Endeavour to restore the Hubble Space Telescope. His mini Hanukkah celebration was broadcast over satellite for people back on Earth to see.

Instead of buying petroleum-based Hanukkah candles at the drugstore, treat yourself to a box of all-natural vegan candles that burn cleanly. Not only are plant-based candles better for the environment, but they’re also healthier for you to inhale, as some of the synthetic ingredients used for color and scent can pose health hazards. For example, paraffin wax can release harmful chemicals when burned, and limonene can transform into formaldehyde, a carcinogen, according to Vegan Friendly.

While beeswax candles are a common option for Hanukkah, we recommend avoiding candles made with animal byproducts (other common ones in candles include stearic acid or goat’s milk) and opting for 100 percent plant-based candles that keep animals out of the equation.

27 Delicious Hanukkah Recipes You Need to Make This Year

Veggie latkes are one of our favorite Hanukkah foods!

With eight, delicious latke-filled nights, Hanukkah offers a whole slew of opportunities to make some delectable menus for your friends and family to enjoy. This year, Hanukkah begins on December 10 and ends on December 18, providing you with eight decadent nights for all of your favorite Hanukkah foods.

The celebration of Hanukkah recognizes the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem during the second century B.C. The story goes, when a leader outlawed Judaism, a group of Jews revolted. But in order to rededicate the temple, they needed to burn a candelabra for eight days in succession. But they only had enough oil for one. Miraculously, the candles stayed lit for all eight days, which is why we celebrate the "festival of light" today. Many traditional Hanukkah recipes use oil to commemorate that same oil that kept the lights burning &mdash give us all of the latkes, please! But Hanukkah foods (some of our favorite holiday recipes!) go far beyond potato pancakes. These recipes are even better than Hanukkah gifts!

Make the most of your holiday by trying some of these snacks, appetizers and desserts that range from traditional preparations to unique twists on old favorites. From latkes to sufganiyot, you'll want to serve up all of these easy Hanukkah dishes to your family this year. We've gathered main dishes, appetizers and desserts to elevate your celebrations, with plenty of options so that you can celebrate every night with a different menu. From brisket to salmon, our go-to Hanukkah chicken recipes and delicious veggie side dishes, you can't go wrong with our favorite easy dinner recipes.

A brief history of latkes

Hanukkah (or Chanukah or Chanuqa or Xanuka—the spelling options are endless!) is far and away the best-known Jewish holiday in America. Passover is its closest rival, but only Hanukkah gets the Hallmark movie treatment, which presents it as analogous with Christmas, with twinkling lights and gift-giving and snow.

As every Jewish American child who ever attended Hebrew school will tell you, actually Hanukkah is a very minor festival and it’s only blown up in the past century or so because Jewish American parents didn’t want their children to feel left out during the Christmas season. The story behind Hanukkah is the standard “they tried to kill us, we’re alive!, let’s eat” narrative that applies to so many Jewish holidays (someone actually made a chart ). The food at Hanukkah is especially good because the story involves oil—the eternal flame in the temple miraculously burned for eight days, even though there was enough oil for just one—so we are obligated to eat food that has been fried in oil. (Also, as Gil Marks notes in The Encyclopedia Of Jewish Food, the Judean olive oil harvest traditionally concluded on the 25th of Kislev, which became the first day of Hanukkah on the Jewish calendar.) What a hardship! Here in America, that fried food generally takes the form of potato pancakes called latkes.

Why do we eat potato pancakes? The short answer is the same as for so many foods American Jews eat: for most of us, our ancestors lived in Eastern Europe and were poor as hell. Potatoes are cheap. So are onions. In Ye Olden Days in the Old Country, nobody had olive oil or Crisco or even butter. They fried their latkes in schmaltz, or chicken fat. ( Some food scholars suggest that latkes were originally fried in goose fat and were eaten in early winter to correspond with the seasonal goose slaughter.) However, Marks points out that potatoes didn’t reach Eastern Europe until the mid-19th century. Before then, Jews ate pancakes made out of buckwheat flour, similar to Russian blini. Once the Jews embraced potatoes, though, they held fast, because there are few things in life better than fried potatoes. The crowning touch on any latke is said to be the drops of blood from when the person preparing them scrapes her knuckles on the potato grater. (Or so my father said of the latkes prepared by his grandmother, a true woman of valor. The first year I made my own latkes, I grated them by hand. There was blood. The next year, I bought a food processor. I detected no difference in flavor.)

The pancake tradition, however, is much older than potato latkes. Originally, according to the great Jewish-American food maven Joan Nathan, Jews ate pancakes made of flour and water because that’s what the Jewish warriors, the Maccabees, ate before they went into battle against the Greeks. They were fried in oil to commemorate the miracle.

In the Middle Ages, though, in Italy, the Hanukkah story got conflated with another story, the story of Judith, a brave Jewish widow, who slew the evil Assyrian general Holofernes, whose army was holding her city, Bethulia, under siege. She did this by visiting his tent and seducing him with lots of cheese, which made him thirsty. Then she gave him lots of wine so he passed out. Whereupon she chopped off his head, stuck it in her basket, and carried it out to the other Jews who proudly displayed it on the city wall and scared off the rest of the Assyrians (and later inspired some truly badass Renaissance art ). Therefore, the Italian Jews felt they should eat cheese in celebration—ricotta, because this was Italy—and they fried it in oil because Hanukkah miracle. Even though it came from a completely different story, from a completely different century. Syrians, Assyrians, Judah, Judith, it all blended together. Maybe Judah and Judith were brother and sister? Or nephew and aunt! Who cared? There were fried cheese pancakes, which tasted a hell of a lot better than flour and water!

Jewish history through Hanukkah recipes from around the world

The tradition of celebrating Hanukkah by eating fried foods has its roots in history. But which foods are associated most depends on where your family comes from or where you live. While I was aware of three – latkes, sufganiyot and sfenj – I didn’t know how potatoes, doughnuts and fried dough were culinarily connected, other than by frying. Looking at food in terms of the history of where we have lived may help to explain:

Sufganiyot go back to the 14th century Jewish diaspora. In addition to lighting menorahs each night, communities fried different types of dough in order to celebrate the role that oil played in the miracle. Initially the fillings were savory, but in the 16th century, when the price of sugar fell significantly, the traditional doughnut filling became jam. The modern sufganiya emerged in Israel in the 20th century, with the yeasty treat, like much of Israeli cuisine, a fusion of various traditions brought here by Jewish immigrants from around the world who began arriving in large numbers at this time. Even its name, sufganiya, a twist on the Aramaic word sufganin, which appears in the Talmud referring to spongy dough and derived from the Greek word sfog, or sponge, embodies the eclectic history of this doughnut. (from

Sufganiyot, Israeli deep-fried jelly donuts (here’s a basic recipe), are traditionally sprinkled with powdered sugar, but the last number of years have seen them get fancier and fancier, with a growing variety of both fillings and toppings. Roladin Bakery is particularly known for its gourmet selection.

The Moroccan spongy fried dough called sfenj that are eaten by Jews (recipe here) for Hanukkah actually has its roots in Maghreb, and though similar to a beignet or zeppole, it is coated with honey or a simple syrup.

I’ve also become recently aware of Sephardic bumuelos or burmuelos. This interesting and rich history describes not only their Ladino biblical origins, but notes how this fried dish, doused in honey (recipe here), is connected to similar dishes in Greece and Turkey.

Other fried delicacies exist throughout the world:

Bene Israel Jews from India are known for their milk-based fried pastry, gulab jamun. Jews in Poland adopted the local paczki, a donut filled with jam or jelly, and called them ponchiks. They are similar to the German Berliner donut.…Edda Servi Machlin’s “The Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews” describes a typical Hanukkah menu from her childhood days in Pitigliano, Italy, which included frittelle di Chanuka, which are diamond-shaped yeast cakes with raisins and anise seeds fried in oil and then coated with hot honey. (From

And as for the connection of doughnuts or fritters to latkes? Well, it may actually come by way of Sephardim in Italy, where pancakes filled with ricotta cheese, cassola, were the norm – and they may have been adopted from a Slavic tradition. When Jews were expelled from Spain, this “also applied to Jews in the Spanish territory of southern Italy. Jews who left southern Italy brought their ricotta pancake recipe to Rome it became cassola in the Eternal City and spread throughout northern Italy.” (This piece about the history is particularly interesting). And onward… Centuries later, an abundance of potatoes in Poland and Eastern Europe may have explained how cheese was replaced.

Latkes in Yiddish, levivot in Hebrew, these holiday dish of potato pancakes are Ashkenazi in origin and are made from potatoes (recipe here), although different vegetables may also used for variety. I tried grating once and gave up after shredding my knuckles along with the potatoes. So yeah…while I love learning about recipes, I must admit I’ve used mixes and, the last few years, hash brown potatoes as a base (recipe here). This year, pressed for time (my excuse and I’m sticking to it), we pan fried Trader Joe’s frozen potato pancakes and I can see why they are so popular. Tonight we will try baking them too (blasphemy, I know!).

Throughout history, Jews have experienced expulsions or have fled from their home even as far back as 733 BCE. But everywhere we’ve been, we’ve celebrated our holidays, and in every place we have “sojourned,” we have absorbed local culture. Food customs are especially interesting, because as they evolve, we see recipes that may not only reflect adapting local dishes to make them kosher, but also the prior history of emigres who arrived at each new place.

I see sharing recipes as an opportunity to meld different layers of our past as a people. And if it can also serve as a springboard to rediscovering and learning more about our rich Jewish history, culinary and otherwise, that would certainly be worth celebrating too!


Did it work? Let’s just say that the following year’s Chanukah party, held during a Sunday night snowstorm, had record attendance. My guests mingled and noshed with legume-filled mugs in one hand and latkes in the other, fighting off the chill from within.

And what’s NOT to love about lentil soup? It boasts lots of vegetarian protein, tons of carrots for vivid color, no dairy or eggs or wheat to make fans out of your vegan AND gluten-free friends (check labels on your veggie broth to ensure it’s GF/vegan if your guest list demands such claims), and a sense of virtue for those who consider fried potatoes a once-a-year splurge. And for the chef? You can make it ahead of time, enjoy your own party, and bask in the accolades. That’s what I call a happy Chanukah!

And, because there is a fine line between tradition and repetition, I’m always looking to hear new ideas what do you like to serve with your latkes?

The word comes from the Yiddish latke, itself from the East Slavic oladka, a diminutive of oladya 'small fried pancake', which in turn is from Hellenistic Greek ἐλάδιον '(olive) oil', diminutive of Ancient Greek ἔλαιον 'oil'. [3] [4]

Its Modern Hebrew name, levivah ( לביבה ), is a revival of a word used in the Book of Samuel to describe a dumpling made from kneaded dough, part of the story of Amnon and Tamar. [5] Some interpreters have noted that the homonym levav ( לבב ) means "heart," and the verbal form of l-v-v occurs in the Song of Songs as well. In the lexicon of Ashkenazi Jews from Udmurtia and Tatarstan there are recorded versions of the kosher-style appellation of latkes during the eight-day Hanukkah holiday. [6]

Some version of latkes goes back to at least the Middle Ages. [7] They were probably made of cheese (probably either ricotta or curd cheese), fried in poppyseed oil or butter, and served with fruit preserves. These cheese latkes were the most common kind of latke in Ashkenazi communities until the 19th century, when the potato arrived in eastern Europe. [7] [8] [9] [10] At the time, the cheapest and most readily available cooking fat was schmaltz, rendered poultry fat (usually from a goose or chicken), and due to Jewish dietary laws, which prohibit the mixing of meat and dairy products, alternatives to the cheese latke were introduced. These included buckwheat or rye flour, or other tubers endemic to the region, such as turnips. [11] As the potato became popular in eastern Europe, it was quickly adopted to the point that today, latke is almost synonymous with potatoes. [7]

Latkes today are most commonly made with potatoes, although other vegetables are also sometimes used. There are two main varieties: those made with grated potato and those made with puréed or mashed potato. The textures of these two varieties are different. [ citation needed ]

Grated potato version Edit

Latkes made of grated potatoes are still very popular. They are prepared by grating potatoes and onions with a box grater or food processor then excess moisture is squeezed out. Eggs and flour or matzo meal are then mixed with the potatoes, and the latkes are fried in batches in an oiled pan. The thickness is a matter of personal preference.

Puréed potato version Edit

The dough for puréed potato latkes is puréed in a food processor. This form of latke is easier to shape, and has a "pudding-like consistency." [12]

Other variations Edit

Before the potato, latkes were and in some places still are, made from a variety of other vegetables, cheeses, legumes, or starches. [13] Modern recipes often call for the addition of onions and carrots. [14] [15] Other versions include zucchini, sweet onion, gruyere (for french onion flavor), and sweet potatoes. [16] Sephardic Jews make latkes with zucchini and garlic, omitting dairy-based toppings when served as a side for roasts or meat. [17]

One Step Jelly Filled Donuts, from the Nitra Cookbook

  • 6 cups flour
  • 6 egg yolks
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 3 tablespoons oil
  • 2 tablespoons Gefen Vanilla Sugar
  • 3 ounces yeast
  • 3/4 cup apple juice, lukewarm
  • 3/4 cup water, lukewarm
  • 2 ounces margarine
  • 8 ounces Tuscanini Apricot Fruit Spread or other apricot jam, for filling

Prepare the Donuts

Combine all ingredients except for margarine and jam. Knead well, about seven minutes. Add margarine and knead two to three minutes. Cover and let rise for 45 minutes to one hour.

Divide dough into two parts. Sprinkle plenty of flour onto working surface. Roll out dough to 1/4" thickness.

Using a fine glass (2 and 3/4 inch diameter), slightly mark circles of half the dough. Do not cut through.

Place 1/3 teaspoon apricot jam onto each circle. Fold second half of dough over jam-filled dough. Judging by little lumps of jam, press down glass and cut through to form automatically-sealed donuts! Cover with dish towel and let rise for 15-20 minutes. Repeat with second half of dough.

Deep fry in hot oil until golden brown. Dust with confectioner's sugar.

Photography and Styling by Tamara Friedman

Want some icing? Try this Recipe for Chocolate or Vanilla Doughnut Icing by Dina Tessler

  • 1 and 1/2 cups confectioner's sugar
  • 4 tablespoons Gefen Cocoa Powder
  • 3 tablespoons Gefen Soy Milk or water
  • 2 teaspoons Gefen Vanilla Extract
  • 1 and 1/2 cups confectioner's sugar
  • 3 tablespoons Gefen Soy Milk or water
  • 1 teaspoon Gefen Vanilla Extract
  • drop of food coloring
  1. Add the liquid ingredients to the dry ingredients and mix.
  2. Assemble the ingredients for your desired flavor icing.

To read about Why We Eat Latkes and Sufganiyot on Hanukkah click here.

Hope you enjoy these delicious Hanukkah delicacies! Have a very happy Hanukkah.