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Jewish Soul Food

17 December 2008 1,922 views 11 Comments

3deaf84271834-61-1In Hebrew, the word for soul is Neshamah. In the American South, soul food is usually made with lots of fat and deep fried. Hanukah is the eight-day Jewish festival of light that celebrates two events:

1. The victory of the underdog (Maccabees) against a bully (the Syrian army) and rededication of the temple in Israel in 165 BC.
2. The miracle of one day’s worth holy olive oil that burned for eight days — allowing the Jews to ritually cleanse the Temple and prepare more supplies of holy oil.
This Sunday, Jews in the American South, and around the world will celebrate the first of eight nights of Hanukah by lighting the menorah and enjoying the delights of oil with friends and family.
Potato pancakes (latkes) and doughnuts (soufganiot) are traditional fried foods that Jews across the world typically eat this time of year. Latke is a Yiddish word — a language spoken by Eastern European Jews. Villagers cooked many dishes with potatoes in the winter, when available food was scarce. They also typically used schmaltz (chicken or goose fat) instead of oil to make the dish.


The Austro-Hungarian peasant carnival doughnut, which became a delicacy at the French court of Marie Antoniette, was adopted in Israel to celebrate the holiday because it is fried in oil.
Some fun oil facts for you that maybe you didn’t already know, nu?
We need dietary fats for our health including glowy skin, regulation of cholesterol metabolism, and to carry and aid the absorption of vitamins.
Unsaturated fats from fish, nuts, and vegetable oils are good for us in moderation and reduce high cholesterol levels that can lead to heart disease.
In biblical times, pure olive oil was widely used as a remedy for wounds, sores, chills, and aching throats, ears, and muscles. It was rubbed on cracked hands to soften them and help reduce rashes and irritation in babies and adults.
The term extra virgin – associated only with olive oil — refers to the first cold pressing of the fruit, done by pressing olives between mats using a large screw.
The owners of Boggy Creek Farm shared this recipe for Indian Sweet Potato Latkes during the Urban Farm Bicycle Tour. I haven’t made them myself, but would love to try them if any of you adventurous souls want to share a sample with me:
Judith’s Indian Sweet Potato Curry [Latkes]
1 large sweet potato, peeled and coarsely grated
1/2 cup white flour
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp brown sugar
1 tsp baking powder
dash cayenne pepper
2 tsp curry powder
1 tsp ground cumin
1/4 tsp salt
fresh ground pepper
3 large eggs, beaten
1/4 cup whole milk
1/4-1/2 cup vegetable oil for frying – olive or canola will work well
latkesIn a large mixing bowl, combine all dry ingredients except potatoes. Add eggs and milk to make a stiff batter. Add potatoes and mix (batter should be moist, not runny).

Heat 2-3 tablespoons of oil in a large frying pan for a minute or so on medium-high heat. Drop two heaping tablespoons of potato batter into the hot pan and flatten down with the back of a spatula. Fry 3-4 pancakes at a time. Cook for several minutes until golden on each side. Place fried pancake on a plate covered with a paper towel.

Serve hot with a side of apple sauce and sour cream.
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  • Marcos

    For completeness:
    Sufganiot (סופגנייות) is Hebrew. In Yidish: ponchkes (פאנטשקעס)
    Latkes (לאַטקעס) is Yidish. in Hebrew: levivot (לביבות).

  • Anonymous

    So much knowledge! Thanks and happy holidays.

  • Anonymous

    I love trying new, non-traditional variations of latkes (especially those with sweet potato), so this recipe looks right up my alley. Anyone else have any fun non-traditional latke recipes they’d like to share?

  • Adam

    Top secret latke making tip: The key is getting all the water out of the potatoes so your latkes are crispy, not gooey. After you grate the potatoes, put them in a colander and squeeze all the water out. Then, spread them out on a towel and mash to get any remaining excess moisture. Your bubbe will be proud of you, bubbeleh.

  • double tonic

    i’m afraid you’ve just inspired me to hit katz’s on my lunch hour …. after my weight watchers meeting, of course! ;-)

  • Sara Ballon

    Girl, I’ve been making those sweet potato latkes for at least 9 years! Clearly, they didn’t make an impression on you last year at my Hanukkah party! No fear, you will have them this year at my shindig! They are freaking’s delicious, no matter what David Ansel says.

  • Sara Ballon

    Oh, also…don’t drain latkes on paper towels…use a cookies cooling rack. Keeps ‘em crispy. :)

  • Jodi

    I can’t wait for your latkes, Sara!

  • Benjie

    Non-Traditional Latke Ideas:
    Latkes with sour cream, green onion, and bacon
    truffle oil and fois gras
    sour cream and caviar
    asian spicy mustard
    hummus and ground beef
    hamburger patty with peanut butter (use 2 latkes as buns)

    For anyone in LA, a new Latke store is opening: http://tinyurl.com/4ynm58

  • Anonymous

    A big nod of appreciation to Jodi and more musings on latkes, courtesy of Whole Foods Market: http://blog.wholefoodsmarket.com/2008/12/dishing-up-some-hanukkah-soul-food/

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