Potato Latke Shapiro’s Delicatessen and Bakery Indianapolis
Photograph ©2014 by Brian Cohen.

Happy Chanukah 5784

Chanukah arrived rather oilier than usual this year.

Chanukah 5784 began at sundown on Thursday, December 7, 2023 and will end at sundown on Friday, December 15, 2023. Oil is an important component of the holiday — which is also known as the festival of lights — because when a single cruse of olive oil was found that was not contaminated by the Seleucids during the second century before the common era, it was used to light a candelabrum at the Temple of Jerusalem called a menorah

Happy Chanukah 5784

…and the olive oil lasted for eight days instead of one day, which was considered a miracle. The small group of Jewish people were unexpectedly given time to be prepared under the proper conditions of ritual purity.

To commemorate that miracle, Chanukah is celebrated annually with the lighting of a menorah every night for eight consecutive nights, special prayers, and fried foods…

Minsk Belarus potato latkes pancakes
Photograph ©2017 by Brian Cohen.

…and one of those fried foods is known as a latke, which is essentially a potato pancake that is fried in oil. The potato pancake is the national dish of Belarus, which is one of several countries in eastern Europe where potato pancakes originated.

When I found out this information, I knew that I had to have some potato pancakes while I was in Minsk, which is the capital city of Belarus — especially as I have always enjoyed potato latkes. My mouth almost always salivates at the very thought of enjoying one. The creation of latkes is such a simple recipe that I do not believe anyone can incorrectly choose a place in Belarus to sample the national dish.

You really cannot go wrong with dining on potato latkes at most Kosher delicatessens and Jewish-style restaurants in the United States, either. For example, the potato latke at Shapiro’s Delicatessen and bakery in Indianapolis in Indiana had a full fried potato flavor with a nice consistency in the center. Unfortunately, the external area surrounding the pancake was too overdone, resulting in a crunchy crust which fell apart when cutting into it.

Enjoying some matzo ball soup during Chanukah is not a problem at all. Go for it. Just decide whether you prefer your matzo balls so fluffy that they float in the air; or the way I prefer them: hard enough to bend a spoon when attempting to cut into it — or give someone a concussion if one is thrown at the head of that person.

Stara Synagogue Kraków Poland
Photograph ©2017 by Brian Cohen.

If you happen to be in Poland, the permanent exhibition in the main prayer hall of Synagoga Stara — which is the oldest synagogue in Kraków — is dedicated to the synagogue and the most important holidays of the religious Jewish Calendar. In addition to Chanukah, the Day of the Sabbath, the Feast of Tabernacles, Purim, Passover, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur — which is the Day of Atonement — are all featured in the exhibition.

Consider visiting Dohány Street Synagogue in Budapest if you find yourself in Hungary. It is the largest synagogue in Europe.

Please give the performances by the late Yosi Piamenta a try if you would like some music to accompany the celebration of Chanukah.

Final Boarding Call

Because potatoes were considered a cheap staple for poor people, dining on a fancy potato pancake at an upscale eatery probably would be little more than a waste of extra money.

Minor variations of the recipe of grated potatoes and onions fried in oil are available — I personally have added fresh minced garlic and fresh lime on occasion when I prepare them, while other people might add flour, baking soda, dill, eggs, or other ingredients for varying textures and flavors — but I prefer the base recipe.

As for accompaniments, applesauce is quite popular. Salt and pepper also works. You can even use — ugh — ketchup if you have to do so. Use whatever you want to accompany your latkes or potato pancakes.

May you have been having a festive and joyous Chanukah 5784 holiday if you celebrate it. Try not to lose too much chocolate coin gelt when spinning the dreidels; may your latkes and doughnuts be as delicious as ever; and may the candles in your menorah last longer than usual over these eight days.

All photographs ©2014 and ©2017 by Brian Cohen.

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