A few years ago, a colleague of mine asked me to identify one food that would sum up the whole of my family’s gastronomic heritage and identity. They wanted to know which food was equally enjoyed by all members of my family at all occasions from holidays to birthdays. Without much hesitation, I replied with “latkes.” My family, and many other Jewish families, eat latkes not only for holidays, such as Chanukah and Purim, but also during random visits to the local delicatessen.
Latkes are pancakes made from shredded potatoes that are fried in oil. They’re crispy on the outside and smooth and fluffy on the inside. They’re just as scrumptious slathered with applesauce or sour cream as they are when they replace the bread in a pastrami sandwich. Latkes are delicious, easy to make, inexpensive, have a good shelf life in the refrigerator, and reheat beautifully. They can be served with everything from chocolate ice cream to the finest caviar. There’s no occasion or setting in which a latke doesn’t have a home. To that point, latkes—while not always known as such—are a food that can be found in cuisines worldwide. From the Koreas, to Eastern Europe, to the Andes in South America, latkes are made and enjoyed.
Looking into the origin, history, and evolution of latkes, I followed recent articles from the popular media to a scholarly one written by Gil Marks in Encyclopedia of Jewish Food. I was surprised to learn that the latke has roots in 15th-century Sicily, and I noticed that recipes illustrating this origin had a common thread: They all called for all-purpose flour, sugar, baking soda or powder, and vegetable oil. This seemed odd to me, since an individual in Sicily—Jewish or otherwise—didn’t have all-purpose flour, baking soda or powder, sugar, or vegetable oil in their pantries. Instantly, I knew my mission—to create a more authentic recipe for this early latke. Before I go further into my surprise at the lack of historical gastronomic integrity in some of these articles, let’s take a step back and examine a brief history of the latke.
There’s speculation and some concrete archaeological evidence that ancient peoples had been cooking primitive breads as far back as the development of pottery—roughly 18,000 to 25,000 years ago. These breads are more closely related to what we now consider a pancake, which for multiple millennia were one and the same. Slightly runny batters or sticky doughs were cooked in animal fats and looked like what we now know as a flatbread or pancake depending on the dough or batter used. If we fast-forward to around 1500 BC we see mention of African, Egyptian, Greek, Etruscan, and Roman peoples starting to differentiate between pancakes and bread.
Evolution of these two styles takes a turn in the late 1400s in Sicily, a time when that island was under Spanish control. In 1492, when Spain exiled its Jewish residents from its lands, many of those Jews settled near Rome before being pushed even farther, into northern and eastern Europe. It’s noted, as Marks points out, that around this time, Ashkenazi Jews in Rome started cooking a latke made from ricotta and (durum) flour, which they fried in olive oil. When the Jews continued their migration into Eastern Europe they were met with foods and ingredients that were new to them. Still wanting to cook the foods they were accustomed to, Jews, and many other peoples, began to cook using foreign ingredients.
The main new foreign ingredient when it came to cooking latkes was the potato, a tuber native to the Andean Highlands of South America that was brought to Europe by Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century. The potato was believed to be toxic for many centuries until a great famine around the time of the French Revolution propelled it into culinary acceptance. It’s from here that we see the latke settling into its current identity sometime in the late 18th- or early 19th-century.
A Purposeful Pursuit
Now that we’ve taken a multi-millennia crash course in the history of pancakes and the latke, we can get back to my dilemma: Why are recreations of recipes from antiquity and beyond so inaccurate? I’ve built my career as a zymologist and chef who works to uncover and repopularize forgotten foods and the traditions surrounding them because what starts with an incorrect ingredient in a recipe can, over time, lead to more broad-reaching revisionist portrayals of peoples, places, and events. This is a dangerous road to travel, one that can ultimately belittle, degrade, and downplay our collective past.
At my delicatessen, Larder, we’ve developed a potato latke that is made solely from potatoes. There’s no egg, flour, or other ingredient, aside from salt and fat to fry them in, to distract from this version’s simplistic purity. My 15th-century latke recipe espouses exactly the ingredients that would be available to cooks at that time. The recipe uses a mother with wild yeasts, durum flour, and honey—all ingredients that a 15th-century cook would have had access to.
Durum is an ancient variety of wheat that is considered “hard” because of the difficulty in milling it. When it’s milled, you end up with two types of flour: durum, which is fairly fine, and semolina, which is very coarse. Durum has been used in the Middle East and Mediterranean for nearly 9,000 years. I chose durum because all-purpose flours didn’t really start appearing until the 17th century, when the French were refining and codifying the specific types of flours to be used in baking.
Honey has been the sweetener of mass appeal throughout the ages, with documented use as far back as 8,000 years ago in Spain and wide acceptance that it had been enjoyed for many millennia before that. Sugar made from sugarcane (or beets) wasn’t widely used, or affordable, until the 19th century. Honey would have been virtually the only affordable sweetener in 15th-century Europe.
Mothers or starters are the mediums for culturing the yeasts needed for leavening bread. As the yeast digests sugars in the starter, it produces carbon dioxide as a byproduct, and this gas is what enables our breads, cakes, and other pastries and baked goods to rise. Without leavening, all our baked goods would be incredibly dense and hard. Baking powder/soda, another type of rising agent, wasn’t widely available until after the American Civil War, and granulated active dry yeast was invented after World War II. Fifteenth-century cooks would have let their batters ferment slightly with wild yeasts to get their baked goods to rise.
We can learn a lot about ourselves by studying the past, and food can transport us there so effectively because of its extreme sensory nature. When our children ask us where we came from or what life was like for our ancestors, it is more compelling if we can let them experience a bite of the past, instead of simply telling a tale.
I’ve provided both recipes for you to cook and enjoy at home. Both of these are latkes, but each is dramatically different from the other in nearly all physical attributes. They also taste radically different from each other. The uniting threads between the two is that they are both fried in fat, shaped like a pancake, and can be enjoyed with the same accoutrements, including chocolate ice cream. Trust me on this.