This Chanukah, I did the unthinkable. Here’s why you should too.
Going back to the dawn of Jewish history is an argument about which classic holiday food is superior. The Latke-Hamantaschen debate has sought to determine through Talmudic inquiry whether Purim’s triangular, fruit or poppy seed pastry or the fried potato “pancake” associated with Chanukah is “better.” With all due deference to my colleagues at the University of Chicago, this is not an argument for the sake of heaven!
In the first place, these two foods are not even eaten at the same time of year. One never needs to choose between one or the other! Eat hamantaschen in the spring; eat latkes in the winter. Also, Latkes are clearly better so SHUT UP!
But, as I say, the argument is pointless. The real question is concerning the latke itself and what you should put ON it. The classic toppings are sour cream or applesauce and there are strong arguments to be in favor of each. However, I would like to suggest that although these toppings are both tasty, there is another that is superior to both of them. And though Hashmoneans everywhere will be shocked, even revolted when I reveal what it is, nevertheless, I urge you not to troll me until you’ve tried it.
But before we get to that mystery topping, we must understand, how the classic toppings of sour cream and applesauce came to be associated with the latke and why.
Hot, Salty, Grease
In her 2017 James Beard Award winning cookbook, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking, Samin Nusrat lays out some basic principles of good cooking and how basic tastes and flavors work together to make the food you cook and eat more delicious. To be honest, a lot of what she says is a no brainer. For example, “Food tastes better with salt.” “Fat is yummy.” Duh!
The third element is a bit subtler. Acidity, it turns out, is also an important element for good flavor, especially when combined with fat. It’s why we mix vinegar with our olive oil before dumping it all over our salad. Acid cuts the fat on the palate and adds, what Julie Child’s protégé and PBS chef Sara Moultan calls a “pointer upper.”
Starch: The Grand (but bland) Canvas
Now consider the Latke. The humble white potato, a bit of starchy carbohydrate that has, inherently, less flavor than almost any vegetable (perhaps that’s why it is tolerated so well by the palates of so many Americans) mixed with a bit of onion that has been fried in oil until crispy and nice and brown. Salt? There should be some in the mix, if you know what you are doing. In addition, for most, egg serves as a binder and, yes, adds more fat.
So right from the pan, the latke is hot, crispy, salty, and greasy! Nothing to complain about here! And yet… it’s a little bland. The wisdom of the ages and the yearning of the taste buds tell us something is missing. It’s acid and here is where the applesauce comes in. Applesauce is tart, which is to say acidic! In addition, it is also sweet, which it turns out also tastes good with grease (think of the other Chanukah classic, sufganiot, fried doughnuts) because, well, sweet tastes good with pretty much everything. The human palate favors nothing as much as it does sugar. Stay with me.
Drop Some Acid, Baby
Ok applesauce, makes sense from a culinary point of view, but what about the sour cream? Dumping more fat on your fat? Doesn’t seem like it should be appealing. But it’s not just cream, it’s SOUR cream. Sour cream is a bit tart and acidic. But it’s not sweet and hence the people who like sweet, turn up their noses. Sour cream poses an additional problem for those who “keep kosher” that is observe the Jewish dietary laws. Sour cream is a dairy food and therefore cannot be served or eaten with meat, because, “Don’t boil a kid in it’s mother’s milk!” (Exodus 23:19). I can’t get into it now, but this can be a problem if you’re having latkes with your brisket.
Also, it’s a lot of fat! Yeah fat is yummy, but putting fat on your fat? It’s kind of like eating a stick of butter dipped in mayonnaise -- a bit over the top, even for me.
So applesauce is the clear winner, right?
Not so fast, Jonagold!
Hold your horses, Honeycrisp!
There are a few issues with applesauce. First of all, if we are honest, applesauce is a bit insipid. It’s sweet, but only slightly so. It’s tart, but not very. And its flavor is so mild that the it is completely overpowered by the onion in the latke. Why bother?
Anticipation…is keeping me way-ay-ay-ay-ay-ting.
So I bet you’re wondering, what exactly am I proposing. Wait for it…It’s ketchup. No, no, hear me out!
I have often argued that ketchup is, if not the perfect food (it falls short of this since almost no one eats ketchup alone, though I’ve been known to lick it off my plate or my fingers) but it is without a doubt the perfect condiment.
There are five tastes known to the human palate: salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami. Umami is the fifth taste identified by the Japanese and perhaps best translated into English as savoriness. It is the somewhat elusive flavor that is manifest in roasted chicken and in, you guessed it, concentrated tomatoes.
Ketchup has all five of these tastes! It is hard to think of another food that does. Certainly not one, that is in virtually every American’s refrigerator. To learn more about why ketchup is the perfect sauce, check out Malcom Gladwell’s piece “The Ketchup Conundrum” in the September 6, 2004 issue of The New Yorker.
Now before you flip out and call for a cherem, consider, that a latke is little more than a tarted-up hash brown. There is a reason that those 24 hour, serve-breakfast-round-the-clock diners have a bottle of ketchup on every table. (Hasmonean sounds suspiciously like hash brown, no?)
But does ketchup belong on a latke? Who’s to say it doesn’t? Acid? Check. Sweet? Check. More salt? Check. And yes, sweet heaven, yes, umami to light up the weariest tongue. Just one dollop and I think you will agree, the greatest Chanukah miracle this year, is taking place right there in your mouth.
So on this Festival of Lights, when your reach for that oily, brown, round of crunchy potato goodness, reach also for a bottle of Heinz’s Variety No. 1. Unorthodox? Youbetchya. Will it make your bubbe wince? Without a doubt. But a few drops of the miraculous sauce and you may become convinced that Moshiach is on the way. In the words of the holiday song, “tonight, our people, as we dream, will arise, unite, and be redeemed.” Or as it is often paraphrased, “They tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat!”
“You want ketchup with that?”