Latke: A pancake, especially one made from potatoes and eaten during the eight-day Chanukah/Hanukkah holiday, which began last night. Latkes are fried in copious quantities of oil (traditionally olive oil) to commemorate the historic Chanukah miracle of a small amount of lamp oil lasting for eight days.
Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Phyllis Glazer explains that a latke "is not just a pancake made from potatoes, it's a potato pancake with a poor man's pedigree, a history, a tradition and a neshamah, a soul."
Latke is a Yiddish word, but Glazer discovered a complicated etymology:
I found that some sources claim it derives from the Old Russian oladka, and is a diminutive of olad'ya, from Greek eladia, the plural of eladion, which means "a little oily thing" and comes from elāi, which means "olive."
Maybe, maybe not. Webster's Third International Dictionary supports the "olive" etymology, but the Shorter OED gives a different source: Russian latka, "an earthenware vessel," and stops there, so I couldn't tell whether this latka is related to Old Russin oladka. Someone with the big OED, or an authoritative Yiddish dictionary, want to help me out?
Latkes don't have to be made from potatoes. Here's a recipe for latkes made with four to five cups of chopped olives.
Latkes are much more popular in the United States than in other Jewish communities. When I lived in Israel, I never saw latkes during Chanukah. Instead, people ate sufganiyot, plump and delicious jelly doughnuts. Deep-fried in oil, of course.
Photo: Los Angeles Times.