Latkes from spicy lands

The first time I ate aloo tikki, spicy potato patties, at an Indian restaurant, I immediately thought of my own culinary heritage.

latkes 88 (photo credit: )
latkes 88
(photo credit: )
The first time I ate aloo tikki, spicy potato patties, at an Indian restaurant, I immediately thought of my own culinary heritage. In texture they recalled the type of potato pancakes I've eaten at Jewish delis - crisp on the outside with a smooth interior, like latkes made with mashed rather than grated potatoes. These Indian "latkes" became one of my favorite Indian dishes, and every time I eat them, no matter what the time of year, I think of Hanukka. In fact, Indian cooks have developed potato-pancake-making to a fine art and serve them often. On festive occasions, these exotic potato patties might be stuffed, and then they somewhat resemble the fried kubeh familiar to Mizrahi eateries. Usually the stuffings are meatless, but there are notable exceptions. The Jews of Cochin, for example, stuff their holiday potato cakes with chicken, according to Dina Levy and Miriam Dekel, the editors of a Hebrew book on this group's food, Not Just Rice and Curry (Chaim Langert, Jerusalem, 1995). Ran Shinar, the author of Hari Curry Indian Cuisine (in Hebrew; Tamar Books, 1982), fills his potato cakes with ground meat curry and notes that you can use any leftover curry. The crusty potato appetizers might be thick patties, thin cakes or small spheres and are simple to prepare. Seasonings vary from a gentle pinch of ground ginger, nutmeg or cumin to a liberal dose of hot chiles - fresh, dried or a mixture of both. Some chefs accent their patties with the lively flavors of fresh onions, garlic, gingerroot, coriander leaves or lemon juice. For a little extra richness, many cooks enhance their potato cakes with coconut, peanuts, almonds or cheese. Instead of making patties, Indian cooks sometimes shape the potato mixture in balls to make a snack that resembles falafel, and not only in its shape. Before being fried, the potato balls are dipped in a batter made from chickpea flour, giving their crust a taste recalling that of the famous Middle Eastern specialty. Moreover, cumin - an important falafel flavoring - is often the main seasoning in the Indian potato balls. Like latkes, which usually come with applesauce or sour cream, Indian potato cakes are often served with fruity or dairy dips. Instead of applesauce, there might be mango chutney. For a creamy partner for the pancakes, there is often yogurt. Those who prefer spicy sauces top their potato cakes with a spoonful of chili-spiked, cilantro-mint chutney. Neela Paniz, who serves tasty Indian snacks at her Bombay Cafe in Los Angeles, noted in her book, The Bombay Cafe (Ten Speed, 1988), that potato pancakes "are a favorite street food all over India" and are served with bowls of chopped onion, green chiles and tamarind chutney. "Just like at an American hot dog stand, customers can order the pancakes exactly to their liking," Paniz writes. With her lemony potato pancakes, she offers a choice of accompaniments: sweet and sour tamarind-date chutney, spicy green chile chutney or, bowing to the American custom, sour cream. SPICY POTATO LATKES If you like falafel, the flavor of these Indian-inspired latkes will have an appealing familiarity and will add variety to your Hanukka menus. Yamuna Devi, the author of The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking (Bala, 1987), notes that you can bake potato patties on an oiled baking sheet instead of frying them. The crust is not as delicate, but baking yields pleasing results and is more practical than frying if you're making a large amount. Besides, you'll use less oil. 450 gr. potatoes, preferably large baking potatoes salt and freshly ground pepper 1 small onion, finely chopped (optional) 1 fresh hot pepper, finely chopped, or cayenne pepper to taste 1 tsp. ground coriander 1⁄2 tsp. ground cumin 1⁄4 tsp. turmeric 3 large eggs, beaten 2 to 3 Tbsp. bread crumbs or flour, if needed 5 to 6 Tbsp. vegetable oil, or more if needed Put potatoes in a saucepan, cover with water and add salt. Bring to a boil, cover and simmer about 25 minutes or until tender. Drain, peel and mash potatoes. Add onion, hot pepper, coriander, cumin, turmeric and salt and pepper to taste. Beat eggs and mix with potatoes. Add bread crumbs, if necessary, so mixture is thick enough to be formed into patties. Mix well. Preheat oven to 150 C to keep latkes warm. Heat 1⁄4 cup oil in a heavy large skillet over medium heat. Using a large tablespoon, add a spoonful of batter to oil and flatten slightly to make a small pancake of 5 to 6 cm. diameter. Mixture should spread but pancake does not need to be very thin. If mixture is too thick to spread at all, add a little water to batter. If pancakes do not hold together, add 1 tablespoon more bread crumbs to batter. Make more pancakes of the same size and fry for 5 minutes or until they are golden brown on both sides; turn them carefully with 2 pancake turners. Transfer to paper towels spread on an oven-proof tray. Keep warm in oven while frying rest of pancakes. Stir batter occasionally; add more oil to skillet if needed. The pancakes are best if served right away, but they can be kept warm for 30 minutes. You can also make them 1 day ahead and refrigerate them; heat in 1 layer on a baking sheet in a 150 C oven. Makes about 4 servings. Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast (HarperCollins) and 1,000 Jewish Recipes (Wiley).