Latkes, jelly doughnuts and brisket: Inside Jewish Hanukkah food traditions

Latkes, jelly doughnuts and brisket: Inside Jewish Hanukkah food traditions

Dahlia Ghabour, Louisville Courier-Journal
November 29, 2021

Just before the first night of Hanukkah, Alexander Chack made latkes.

He started with grating a big pile of potatoes, onions and carrots, then mixing the grated vegetables with eggs and forming them into palm-sized pancakes. Then the latkes, or potato pancakes, go into the oil to fry.

“There’s different styles, but I like to grate them,” Chack said. “Some people blend them into a pulp, but when they’re grated they have these crispy bits that stick out on the side. That’s how my mom always made them when I was a kid.”

Traditionally, he said, Eastern European Jews would eat latkes topped with sour cream and applesauce. Chack sometimes tops them with smoked salmon, mustard dill sauce, or even smoked whitefish or caviar. Pretty much any topping is good on potatoes, he said.

Chack owns Cold Smoke Bagels, a bagel and schmear shop inside Logan Street Market, 1001 Logan Street. It’s one of the few places in the city that focuses on creating classic Jewish foods, like bagels and lox.

“The point of my concept here is to bring back Jewish food culture in a fresh, fun way,” he said. “It’s not just packaged stuff on the shelf at Kroger. It’s fresh and has that spirit of the food culture.”

Hanukkah, the eight-day “festival of lights” began Sunday, Nov. 28 at sundown. Jewish people celebrate Hanukkah by lighting menorahs, telling the Hanukkah story, and eating a lot of foods fried in oil — like latkes. Unlike other Jewish holidays, Hanukkah is more about community and tradition than religion. And quite a lot of those traditions revolve around fried foods.

“It’s a historical holiday,” Chack said. “It’s to commemorate the miracle that happened there in Jerusalem at the temple. It’s about that and it’s about nosh…small foods for parties.”

Hanukkah commemorates a story from the second century when a small band of Jews drove Greeks away from Jerusalem and reclaimed the Holy Temple in Jerusalem from them. When they tried to light the temple’s menorah (a seven-branched candelabrum), they found only a single portion of olive oil that had escaped contamination by the Greeks. They lit the menorah, and the one-day supply of oil lasted for eight days until new oil could be prepared.

Nowadays, Jewish families light their own menorahs, one candle for each night of Hanukkah. Usually, each family member has their own menorah, which leads to a whole table of lit candles by the end of the week. Families play dreidel, a spinning top game, to win chocolate coins called gelt.

In addition to latkes, many Jewish families make or buy jelly doughnuts called sufganiyot during Hanukkah.

Noam Bilitzer, the executive chef at Red Hog Restaurant & Butcher Shop, 2622 Frankfort Ave., said the doughnuts are “a big must” during Hanukkah.

“It’s normally filled with raspberry or strawberry jam,” he said. “My mom and sisters make them. They’re super yeasty, really airy, delicious doughnuts, very light and rich with lots of egg yolk. They’re great.”

Bilitzer said his family always made matzo ball soup during Hanukkah and instead of brisket, which many Jewish families have during holidays, they would bake beef tongue with red wine and jam. Now, Red Hog sells kosher brisket special during Jewish holidays.

“It’s pretty hard to find in Louisville,” he said. “It’s an American Jewish tradition, brisket all around. The demand is growing. We always carry brisket, but we have a kosher one during High Holy Days.”

Alison Roemer, senior director of Jewish Journeys and Experiences at the Jewish Community Center, 3600 Dutchmans Lane, said if you ask anyone about Hanukkah food, they will tell you about the potato latkes and doughnuts.

“A lot of families choose to make matzo ball soup not because it’s a Hanukkah food but because it reminds them of Jewish holidays,” she said. “In my family, we always make barbecue brisket.”


Before the pandemic, the JCC would have latkes in the lobby for families. Now, they make Hanukkah kits for families with children. Roemer said nearly 200 families signed up for kits this year, triple the amount from 2020. The kits include a small gift, a dreidel, gelt, and treats. Middle school kits include a hot chocolate bomb and beeswax kits for making your own candles. Families can then take the kits home and celebrate safely in their family groups.

“Hanukkah is sort of a minor festival, it’s not one of our major holidays,” Roemer said. “It’s more about being with family, enjoying time together. You’re typically together for a meal, and you gather to light the candles. It’s a celebration each evening.”

Features reporter Dahlia Ghabour covers food, dining trends and restaurants in the Louisville area. Send tips on new places or story ideas to or follow on Twitter @dghabour. 


Courtesy of Alexander Chack. Makes about 12 palm-size latkes

  • 4 russet potatoes
  • 3 yellow onions
  • 3 medium size carrots
  • 6 eggs
  • Salt and pepper
  • Frying oil

Directions: Peel potatoes, carrots and onions. Grate each and combine. Mix in beaten eggs, salt and pepper. Form the mix into palm-size pancakes and squeeze out excess liquid. Add to at least 1 inch of hot oil and fry. Turn over when sides are browning. Cook until evenly browned on each side.

Top with sour cream and applesauce or experiment with any toppings: smoked salmon, flavored sour cream, mustard dill sauce, kimchi, pastrami, anything!

Traditional Brisket

Courtesy of Noam Bilitzer, executive chef at Red Hog Restaurant & Butcher Shop

  • 5-6 pound local brisket, thick fat cap removed
  • 2 heads garlic, cut in half
  • 1 pound carrots, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
  • 1 pound onions, peeled and diced into 1-inch cubes
  • 3 teaspoons kosher salt, 2 if using a kosher brisket
  • 2 teaspoons cracked black pepper
  • 1 quart Red Hog beef stock
  • 2 cups red wine
  • 2 bay leaf
  • 8 ounces dry plums( prunes)