Why Israel is a latke-free zone

Israelis have succumbed to the dominance of the Chanucah doughnut

By Nathan Jeffay, December 17, 2009

Every year, the range of doughnuts in Israeli shops becomes wider and yummier. But there is a victim of the Israeli love affair with doughnuts — the latke.

“Latkes have been displaced by doughnuts — there’s no doubt about it,” observes Oz Almog, a Haifa University sociologist who chronicles the day-to-day lives of Israelis.

Today, unless you are a recent immigrant from the West or a guardian of Ashkenazi traditions, the chances are latkes do not feature in your Chanucah celebrations. Gil Marks, a food historian who is currently writing an encyclopaedia of Jewish food, says that the story of doughnuts versus latkes began in the 1920s. The trade union of Jewish workers in Mandate Palestine was concerned that Chanucah provided very few commercial opportunities. “Chanucah did not really have too many traditional foods, and latkes are home-made and so are useless for business.”

According to Marks, the trade union was instrumental in making the doughnut, rather than the latke, the national Chanucah food. They seized on the tradition of Chanucah doughnuts and encouraged bakeries across the country to sell them. “Most people won’t make them at home and they can generate weeks of work for bakers, people transporting them, and sellers.”

Marks says that there was also something natural in the switch of focus from latkes to doughnuts. One of the reasons for its popularity in Europe was that Chanucah was a time when there was a surplus of animal fat, as the festival came at a time when people killed and ate birds they did not want to be feeding through the winter. Frying latkes was a good use for this fat.

In Mandate Palestine the different climate meant that people did not store animal fat in winter. However, what was plentiful and cheap was oil, perfect for frying doughnuts.

The first victim of the Israeli doughnut, known as the sufganiya, was not the latke but the Sephardi doughnut. Sephardim have their own versions of doughnuts, such as the Moroccan sfinj, but the sufganiya preserved the traditions of the Polish version, the ponchke.

Israeli chef Erez Komorovsky, founder of the Lechem Erez chain of bakeries, says there were two reasons for this. First, in pre-state Israel there was a “homogenisation” of culture in line with Ashkenazi ways, and secondly the uniquely-Ashkenazi tradition of including jam, helps to keep them fresh.

As for the latke, albeit pushed off centre stage, it bumbled along and remained a relatively popular home-made food until the 1980s. Then, says Dr Almog, came the cultural change that gave the doughnut the ultimate boost and moved the latke closer to oblivion – the rise of the microwave-generation.

Making latkes can be relatively time-consuming, with potatoes to peel and grate, onions to chop, and the messy task of deep-frying. By contrast, the busy householder can fly in to the supermarket on the way home from work, pick up some doughnuts, and his or her Chanucah celebration is ready without an iota of effort.

Equally important as the difference in preparation time and effort, says Dr Almog, is the fact that doughnuts are a quick snack that are good to go whenever people show up, while latkes are a more substantial food and best eaten as soon as they are ready. “The whole idea of people sitting together celebrating the holiday may still exist but not as it used to, and where it does, perhaps only on one evening rather than all eight. People today are often watching TV and often don’t have the patience to sit around, just eating, talking and enjoying the candles.”

    Last updated: 12:41pm, December 17 2009