Latkes are potato pancakes traditionally eaten for Hanukkah. They are fried in oil to commemorate the Hanukkah miracles of one day’s oil lasting for eight days, and of the Jewish military victory over the Assyrians.
But why potato pancakes? Any food fried in oil could be equally symbolic. Donuts (sufganiyot) are another traditional Hanukkah food, and are more popular than latkes in Israel. In fact, potato latkes are a relatively recent invention. Potatoes didn’t even exist in Europe until approximately the mid-1500s. So why don’t we have jalapeno poppers or chicken tempura for Hanukkah?
Originally, dairy foods were connected with the festival of lights. This was due to the Book of Judith, which is not part of the official Hanukkah story. According to this book, Judith entertained an Assyrian general with wine and cheese–and when he passed out, she decapitated him with his own sword. This allowed the Jews to mount a successful surprise attack.
Medieval Jews across Europe, Africa, and the Middle East each had their own traditional dishes fried in oil, including chicken and desert pastries. One of the most popular were Italian pancakes made of ricotta cheese.
As Jews migrated to eastern Europe, vegetable oils were harder to find. They fried with animal fat instead. To maintain kashrut, they could no longer use dairy products. Before potatoes arrived on the continent, latkes were often made with buckwheat.
But in the 1800 and 1900s, potatoes became a staple. Many European cultures have their own version of potato pancakes. And while the fried patties are good year round, they became the perfect way to commemorate Hanukkah.