Last night marked the beginning of a 8-day long Jewish holiday known as Hanukkah. Staying true to my Jewish heritage, I decided to mark the first night of night of Hanukkah by lighting the first candle in a menorah (also known as Hanukkah menorah, or hanukkiyah) and making a traditional dish known as latkes.
First, and as always, a few preface words from history to fun facts about Hanukkah. Also known as Festival of Lights, or Feast of Dedication, and taking multiple spelling forms – Chanukah or Chanukkah – Hanukkah is a Jewish holiday that commemorates the time when the Jews reinstated control of Jerusalem and rededicated The Holy Temple in the 2nd century B.C. Judea was part of the Greek Empire at the time, and the relationship between the pagan Greeks and the ancient Judaism had been so tense that Judaism was largely outlawed, the Holy Temple looted and religious services interrupted. It got to the point that the Greek king, Antiochus, ordered an altar to Zeus to be erected in the temple. He also ruled that pigs be sacrificed to the Greek gods, a regular tradition in the Greek religion.
A pig – or swine, or pork – is a non-kosher food and is forbidden for Jews to consume because it “has a split hoof, but does not chew the cud; it is unclean for you. You shall neither eat of their flesh nor touch their carcass” (Deuteronomy 14:8). That’s the reason you won’t ever see pork or pork products in any form in Jewish cuisine (or Muslim cuisines, for that matter, who also do not consider pork “halal”). When Jews were forced to slaughter pigs in their Holy Temple, that was the last drop, the tipping point that started a massive revolt which lasted 7 years. Within 2 years though, by 165 BC, The Holy Temple was liberated and rededicated. The uprising was led by a Jewish priest, Mattityahu and his five sons, who, along with other rebels, were collectively known as The Maccabees. One of Mattityahu’s sons, Judah or Yehuda HaMakabi (“Judah the Hammer”), is considered the greatest, most remarkable warriors in the Jewish history who led the rebellion to success after his father’s passing.
To celebrate this event, Hanukkah holiday was created. Judah ordered that the Holy Temple be cleansed and rebuilt, and the new altar erected. The pure olive oil, with the high priest seal of purity, was needed to light the menorah but only one flask was found, with enough oil to burn for one day. But, as the story goes, that one flask of oil miraculously lasted for 8 days, just enough time to make a new batch of sacred oil. Thus, Hanukkah became an 8-day long holiday that commemorated this miracle.
Each night of Hanukkah, a new additional candle is lit on the menorah, so by day 8 of the holiday all 8 candles should be kindled. Aside from prayers and other strictly religious rituals, Hanukkah is a great time for families to get together, gift children with money (Hanukkah gelt), or gifts. Kids play dreidel, a four-sided spinning top, each side of which is inscribed with a Hebrew letter that collectively read “A great miracle happened here”. Now, our son is only 9 months old but I can see that a dreidel will come in real handy same time next year (it’s different with the “gelt” – we’ve already started down the money giving path!) Finally, of course, everybody enjoys traditional food, much of which is fried or baked in oil – to commemorate the significance of oil in this holiday.
One of the dishes, potato pancakes, or latkes in Yiddish, is what we made last night. The recipe is reprinted here from its original on Food 52 blog (thank you!)
Ingredients – Latkes4 medium-large Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and sliced longways (so they fit into the food processor)
1 medium onion, peeled and sliced to fit into the food processor
2 tablespoons finely minced parsley
2 tablespoons finely minced green onion
2 eggs, beaten
2 tablespoons all purpose flour or matzoh meal or leftover mashed potatoes
Coarse sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Grapeseed oil for frying
- Using a hand grater or a food processor, grate the potatoes and the onion. Place in a fine mesh strainer over a bowl and squeeze out the water
- Mix the potato and onion in a bowl with the parsley, green onion, eggs, and the flour. Mix well. Season with 2 pinches each of salt and pepper.
- Heat a cast iron skillet or a griddle and coat with a thin layer of the oil (about 1/2 inch). Place spoonfuls of the potato mixture into the oil, flattening each one with a spatula.
- Fry several minutes, until golden brown, and then flip over and continue frying until both sides are well browned. Drain on paper towels. Add additional oil to the pan as needed to fry the rest of the latkes.
- Serve immediately with applesauce and crème fraîche or sour cream
First, let me tell you they came out absolutely great (once again, thanks for the recipe, Food 52). My wife even asked me today, “Are you going to make latkes again any time soon?”. So the tips I have are simply minor suggestions.
- If you have a food processor, use it. We don’t (since we have a fairly small kitchen), so used a hand grater. It’s quite testing to grate 4 large potatoes and more importantly an onion (my sinuses vanished, on the plus side). It’s doable, just not advisable. But if you’re a roll up the sleeves kinda guy or gal, it’s perfectly fine
- I have big hands, and took squeezing the water out very seriously. My wife asked me not to overdo it next time (keep it a little moist, not soggy but just enough to call it wet)
- 2 pinches of salt and pepper didn’t do it … it was more like 5 pinches each at the end
- Flatten each pancake with a spatula – this you should take seriously or they won’t be done soon enough; alternatively, just fry them longer on lower heat but you’re running the risk of not looking them golden brown and deliciously crispy
- I used sunflower oil but that’s a personal preference really
- We served with sour cream, and it was good but we’ll try a sweeter sauce next time
Having learned a few extra bits about Hanukkah over the last couple of days, I realize now that it’s probably one of the kindest, most light-hearted and fun-filled holidays in the Jewish culture (albeit with a bit of dark history that ended well). We sincerely enjoyed lighting the first candle, reading about the history, and of course the latkes. From the culinary perspective, Hanukkah lasts 8 days … which gives me plenty of time over the next week or so to experiment with other traditional Hanukkah dishes.
On this note, love your kids and your family, know your traditions, and enjoy simple things in this life. They are the ones that matter most. Stay warm and stay healthy, and we’ll do the same.