When it comes to the holidays, there’s one thing that everyone looks forward to during the eight days of Hanukkah: latkes. These crispy, smashed pucks of grated potatoes and onions are the main attraction during the Festival of Lights, but, like most foods eaten in the Jewish religion, there’s a specific reason—and a story—as to why latkes are eaten during this eight-day period.
As the Talmud states, after the Jews had driven the Syrians out of Jerusalem, Judah, the leader of the rebellion, called upon the Jews to cleanse and rebuild the Second Temple. Their first move was the lighting of the menorah—an eight-pronged candelabra—that represents knowledge and creation. While there was only enough oil to light the menorah for a single night, the candles burned for eight days, a shocking and celebratory occasion.
Nowadays, this miraculous event is celebrated for eight days in the form of Hanukkah, and so to pay homage to the oil, many dishes that are traditionally served during Hanukkah showcase oil, a potent (and tasty!) reminder that the oil lasted far longer than expected.
Latkes are the most ubiquitous and well-known of the bunch, and they’re often synonymous with Hanukkah. And they’re certainly simple to make. Grated potatoes and onions are mixed with eggs, a bit of flour or matzah meal, and salt and pepper, then formed into squat rounds, which are fried in hot oil until crispy and golden brown, but still firm on the inside. A latke isn’t complete without a dollop of sour cream or applesauce, though; dunk them in with your hands, just as you would a french fry. And while the Internet boasts tons of recipes for modernized takes on the classic latke (think sweet potato and kohlrabi and cumin), the most universal is simply potatoes and onions.
Latkes aren’t the only thing served during Hanukkah; once the latke plates have been cleared, out come the sufganiyot (Hebrew for jelly doughnut), which are served more frequently in Israel. These round nubs are often smaller than the traditional donut shop jelly donut—almost bite-sized—but oozing with bright red jelly inside. Sufganiyot are deep-fried (in oil, of course), then piped with jelly (anything from strawberry to apricot) and dusted with powdered sugar. They may be a simple dessert, but they’re a delicious tribute to Jewish history.
Looking for some recipe inspiration? Here are some to spice up this year’s Hanukkah celebration.
Here’s the universal classic: ribbons of potatoes mixed with onions, eggs, and matzah meal, then fried until crispy. Eat immediately and pair with a heaping portion of sour cream and applesauce. Get our Potato Latkes recipe.
These traditional, puffy, rounded donuts are easy to make and best eaten warm. The dough only needs to rise for an hour and then the frying can commence. Pipe with your favorite jelly flavor, then consume immediately. Get our Suganiyot (Israeli Jelly Doughnuts) recipe.
For an upgraded and modern take on the classic, this Mediterranean-inspired version leans toward herbs, greens, and salty cheese. The process is the same, but with a much lighter and leafy flavor. Make your own tzatziki instead of sour cream for an added bonus. Get the Spinach, Feta, and Potato Latkes recipe.
Cozy up with these autumnal-inspired sufganiyot, which get an added sweetness from piped salted caramel and apple butter and apple cider folder into the dough. Get our Apple Cider Sufganiyot with Salted Caramel recipe.
Swap white potatoes for the glowingly orange sweet potato; the end result is a much richer—and slightly sweater—latke that still goes great with sour cream and applesauce. Get the Sweet Potato Latkes recipe.
These donuts boast an oozing interior of tart blackberries and sweet, thick custard. The addition of custard makes them a more modernized take on the classic sufganiyot, but all the more welcome. Get the Blackberry Custard Doughnuts recipe.
Untraditional to say the least, these pink beet latkes get a spicy kick from a horseradish-tinged crème fraîche. Get the Beet Latkes with Horseradish Crème Fraîche recipe.
Related Video: How to Make Latkes with Leslie Jonath