On the Jewish food scene: Latkes vs. sufganiyot

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

When I was a child, there was only one food option for Hanukkah: latkes. They were the only fried food we ate during the holiday. It wasn’t until I was a teenager (or maybe even later) that I first heard of sufganiyot. What exactly are sufganiyot? Most of the ones I’ve eaten seem a cross between a jelly doughnut and a jelly-filled doughnut hole, although I’ve had some without a filling. (By the way, to show just how old I am, when I first heard of sufganiyot, there were no such things as doughnut holes. Yep, I grew up during in the ice ages.)

Some of you may have heard of the Latke-Hamantash Debate, a humorous symposium that began at the University of Chicago when professors and students semi-seriously debated whether the fried potatoes or the cookie was the better food. I even reviewed a book, “The Great Latke-Hamantash Debate” edited by Ruth Fredman Cernea and Ted Cohen, that featured essays from both sides of the issue. 

Personally, the choice was easy: latkes win hands down. I mean, warm, comforting fried potatoes versus a dry cookie with never enough filing? I didn’t even need to think about it. But this season, I started to wonder if the debate has the wrong focus. After all, it’s more difficult to choose between two different fried foods: latkes vs. sufganiyot (especially those warm from the frying pan or frier). Since I’m don’t have the time or energy to organize a communitywide debate, I thought I would explore some options in this column.

First, savory vs. sweet: Although latkes vs. sufganiyot are both fried, the former is savory while the latter is sweet. Of course, you could make this a debate between sweet potato latkes (which I think of as a dessert) vs. sufganiyot, which would pit a semi-sweet (no sugar added) food against a really sweet one (especially if you put powdered sugar on top). Even though I love sweets, I would have to go with savory in this instance. 

Hot from the oven vs. cold: No one (OK, no one with any real sense) eats latkes cold. They definitely need to be warm. While some people eat sufganiyot straight from the frier, most people wait until they’ve cooled. However, sweets don’t need to be eaten warm and, if I had to choose between them as cold foods, I’d have to take the sufganiyot. However, if I could warm up my latkes, I would definitely go with the savory choice again. 

Ashkenazic vs. Mizrachi: Tradition! (I’d break into the song of that name from “Fiddler on the Roof,” but almost no one wants to hear me sing.) Why wouldn’t you eat the same food your ancestors ate at Mount Sinai? (OK, to be clear, Hanukkah is not mentioned in the Jewish Bible. The events that led to the holiday took place many, many centuries later and potatoes weren’t introduced to Europe until after the European discovery of the Americas. So, relatively speaking, latkes are new. But when it comes to ritual, we do tend to think that whatever we do has been done forever.) Let me give you an example of what I mean about tradition: when it comes to Passover and charoset, I don’t care how many different versions you have on your table. If the apple, walnuts, cinnamon and wine/grape juice one is not on the table, there is no charoset on the table. So, I do understand the psychological need to experience the holiday – and that includes food – the way you always have. 

What’s my final choice? Well, if I can only have one, I’ll take latkes. But why do we have to choose? There are eight days of Hanukkah and that gives us plenty of time to try different fried foods and still have whatever is traditional in your family. In fact, I would suggest we try a different fried food every night, but I’m not sure our doctors would approve, at least for us old folks. Sigh, it might not be good for our cholesterol levels. Then again, Hanukkah only comes once a year.