Israel is a land of immigrants; outside influences tend to seep into our daily lives and shopping carts. Still, some traditions don’t carry over or even compare to the ones ingrained in the cultural fabric by the locals.
For Hanukka here, the sufgania takes all the glory. From the day after Simhat Torah, Israel’s bakeries fill their shelves with the deep-fried, sticky, sugary treat.
Leading up to the main event, Israelis have nearly two months to get their hands on dozens of different varieties of decorated doughnuts, each year’s selection seeming to outdo the last.
Yet latkes, also known as levivot, are a different story.
In the Diaspora, the potato pancake was the star of Hanukka. It was the unpronounceable jelly doughnut that was the oddball for those eight crazy nights.
Not so much over here in the Holy Land. In my experience, it is more like a scavenger hunt to even find the elusive latke in Jerusalem.
Seriously, after visiting nearly every “Israeli” type of food service establishment in Jerusalem – including bakeries, ready-made takeout establishments, restaurants and supermarkets – I was greeted with the same answer and blank stare: “Latkes?” “Yes…” “No!” More hopeful replies came from a handful of eateries specializing in regional cuisine that told me to come back for Hanukka when they will be well-stocked with the greasy fried treat.
To be fair, the potato pancake is a relatively new culinary tradition for the Festival of Lights, making its first known appearance in the late 1800s in Eastern European Ashkenazi communities, some 300 years after the introduction of the potato in Europe around the 16th century.
As the story goes, latkes were first called kartoffelpfannkuchen and were made from shredded potatoes fried in schmaltz. The name became abridged to kartoffel latke. Latke is a Yiddish word that derived from the Russian word “ladka,” which was a cute way of saying “small pancake.”
In Hebrew, the word “levivot” roughly translates to “fritters.” They originally were prepared with fried cheese in Italian Jewish communities and with various root vegetables in North Africa.
After an extensive search throughout the city, I was able to find two humble establishments with latkes available for purchase: Hadar Geula in Geula and Tzidkiyahu in the shuk.
About a dozen experienced scientific taste-testers (hungry Jerusalem Post colleagues) tried these hard-won specimens, with varying reactions.Hadar Geula
A bakery in the heart of the Geula neighborhood, Hadar Geula specializes in haimishe essen (loosely translated to “homey fare” but most often referring to oldschool Eastern European foodstuffs). Locals like it for its variety of ready-made Ashkenazi specialties like kugels, meaty stewy dishes and a variety of salads drenched in mayonnaise.
I was told that the place gets pretty busy on Friday afternoons selling their premade chickens, kugel, cholent and soups.
Their latkes, I’m told, are available all year round, although the man behind the counter said they make more before and during Hanukka.
Hadar Geula’s latkes are quite large, around 15 cm. across, dense and feature deep-fried shredded potatoes, salt and egg, very light on the onion and lacking a sort of thoughtful fluffiness or even crispiness found in memorable homemade batches. When I served them, my colleagues seemed to be quite unimpressed. They all agreed these were generally bland, greasy and undercooked.
One taster did enjoy its heavy yet simple presentation: “I prefer this thick version, which feels more nourishing, simpler and wonderfully filling when you are hungry. Must be heaven with a Weihenstephaner beer.”
Others weren’t as satisfied: “Seems a bit undercooked.”
“Loose, good base for applesauce but not as good as on its own.”
Some couldn’t get past the concentration of oil found in these potato pancakes (which, while dutifully reflecting the requirements of the festival, was not particularly palatable or healthy):
“More like a kugel than a latke, a sponge-like texture soaked in oil. Should be thin and crispy.”
“This is just pure potato and oil, like a lot of oil,” and “Very, very oily, no flavor.”
“Could be good with ketchup...”Hadar Geula
5 Givat Moshe Street
NIS 7 for one latke
Located in the shuk, Tzidkiyahu is mostly known for its ready-made “Israeli-style” salads, meat dishes, olives and pickles.
Their latkes were significantly smaller than the ones from Hadar Geula (about 5 cm. across), but they offered up a different deep-fried experience.
In addition to potatoes, these fritters had shredded sweet potato, onion, garlic and parsley. I was also told that on Hanukka, they will feature two more types of latkes: a vegan one with sweet potatoes and a traditional one with just spuds.
For the most part, the reactions to these latkes were far more positive. Testers enjoyed its heavy oniony flavor, some even calling them “delicious.”
One noted its similarity to a Chinese treat: “Richer taste, a bit stringy, slightly mushy, a bit like an eggroll,” while others found these pancakes to be possessing “juiciness” and “a nice hint of pepper.”
“A healthy dose of oil,” said one tester, promising they “would definitely annihilate a few of these.” Yet another found it to be “more like a ketzitza [patty] than a latke.”
One of the commenters reported enjoying the addition of carrot to the recipe, despite the fact that carrot was not one of the ingredients: “This latke has flavor; it tastes like more than just potatoes and oil. I prefer latkes with mixed vegetables, and this latke meets my Epicurean needs.”
It is “the perfect winter street food,” they concluded.
79 Etz Haim Street, Mahaneh Yehuda
NIS 2.50 for one latke
Overall, finding latkes in Jerusalem a week before Hanukka proved to be a difficult exercise, though at times a tasty one.
At the end of the day, the moral of the story may be: If you want a doughnut in this town, you have more than enough options. If you want latkes, just make them yourself.
The ‘grate’ debate: Sour cream vs applesauce
Now that we got the latkes situation out of the way, another contentious piece of the story must be addressed: How do you serve them?
Typically, in the Diaspora, the options are pretty straightforward: applesauce and sour cream. Jews tend to ask one question and end up with 10 answers.
In an informal poll I conducted on the always entertaining Secret Jerusalem Facebook group, I asked how members top their potato pancakes, giving them the options of sour cream, applesauce, both or neither. The clear winner was applesauce, with 35 votes (out of the poll’s 93 total).
Tied for second place was neither applesauce nor sour cream and just sour cream, both with 15 votes; my personal preference of both got 13 votes.
In addition, a handful offered up other options – with seven votes for ketchup; three for cinnamon and sugar, which I heard is a tradition that can be traced back to the shtetls of Lithuania; and one responder who prefers a mystifying mix of applesauce and ketchup. (Four responded with something else.)
Another poll conducted by the American channel the Food Network has been online for about five years now.
The results are slightly different. Sour cream won with 404 out of a total 1,103 votes. Both applesauce and sour cream came in a close second with 378 votes; the Jerusalem favorite, applesauce received 272 votes; and in last place was neither, with only 49 votes. – S.L.
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