The case for remixing your latkes this Hanukkah
Food experts Bob Blumer and Kat Romanow have tasty ideas for this favourite fried food
At a recent online event hosted by the Museum of Jewish Montreal, I watched cookbook author and TV personality Bob Blumer lay out his step-by-step quest for a potato latke to end them all. That these latkes make a stop before being deep-fried in a pot of hot oil is just one twist. After combining potato with parsnip and celeriac for a slightly sweeter base, he pops the mix into a waffle iron to give it extra texture before his creation heads for the deep. Then, he tops the crunchy goods with a generous schmear of sour cream, silky homemade gravlax, a runny poached egg and salmon roe that pops in your mouth. This dish is a good example of the ethos of Blumer's latest book, Flavorbomb, which has the modest goal of making everything taste better. Frankensteined though it may be, this waffle also shouts back to the early latke bites we might have taken in childhood, served with hefty dollops of applesauce. Nostalgia has its place even at an updated Hanukkah dinner table.
Though she's all for traditional recipes, Jewish food historian Kat Romanow encourages changing up this holiday staple. In fact, the co-founder of Montreal cultural and culinary organization the Wandering Chew thinks Hanukkah is the perfect time to get experimental, since rather than being synagogue-focused, "it's a holiday that's celebrated in the home ... so it makes sense that food has become that focus point." Romanow says Hanukkah hasn't historically been as important a holiday as it is today; rather, it's become a bigger deal alongside the 20th-century commercialization of Christmas. And among the food at the centre of the Festival of Lights, the fried latke is the crown jewel.
As Romanow tells me, the key point of latkes is in form over content, the frying rather than what's being fried. The original version was actually a ricotta pancake made by Italian Jews during the Middle Ages. In the mid-1800s, a root veggie-based version became a staple in eastern Europe when the humble potato made its way to Ukraine and Poland where it was sold for cheap and fried up in schmaltz. The dish likely didn't find its kinship with sour cream until arriving in North America, when dairy became available through mass production, and oil stepped in as the frying agent of choice. Romanow also points out that the festive frying doesn't stop at latkes — plenty of Jewish cultures have their own signature treat, like Israel's popular sufganiyot, jelly- or custard-filled and dusted with powdered sugar; India's gulab jamun, fried dough rounds soaked in rose water syrup; and zengoula, a sort of fried funnel cake you can bite into in Iraq.
Blumer isn't alone in bringing mashups to his latke mash. Romanow has a few inventive recipes inspired by her culinary explorations, including a carrot latke with harissa and preserved lemon yogurt, and a throwback to that original ricotta version. She recalls friend and culture programmer Lauren Schreiber Sasaki, whose partner is Japanese, making latkes inspired by okonomiyaki, a cabbage-based pancake. "I tend to love the things like that — that speak to someone's background and have a bit more of a story to it," says Romanow.
Always the inventive (and self-taught) cook, Blumer is an ambassador for food waste reduction for the Canadian branch of the organization Love Food Hate Waste. He's among a growing number of waste-curious cooks rethinking how they feed their compost bin and how to use the edible parts of food that might be discarded, and that mindset has a natural place during this holiday. "I think part of the Jewish faith is to be conscious, have a consciousness of everything you do. So not being wasteful is definitely a consciousness and also sharing food with other people," he says. This outlook applies in his next-level latke too, since he forgoes peeling the potatoes and uses lime and lemon zest in his salt and sugar gravlax-curing concoction.
By the end of my call with Romanow, I think I'm starting to get it: latke is a state of mind. It's about the how rather than the what; the care and preparation; the simplicity of ingredients that can take the imagination in any wild way. People like Blumer, Romanow, Schreiber Sasaki and other eaters hungry for a little innovation aren't afraid to plumb the depths of nostalgia for this comfort food and mix in ingredients they've grown to find pleasing over the years — so long as it's fried, of course.
Caitlin Stall-Paquet is a Montreal-based writer and editor whose work has appeared in The Walrus, the Globe and Mail, Elle Canada, enRoute, Canadian Geographic, Châtelaine and Xtra. You can follow Caitlin on Instagram and Twitter @caitlinstallp.