In his New York apartment over Thanksgiving break, Micah Fredman ’10 combined his unique passions — cooking and his Jewish faith — to create a fusion latke he hopes will transform traditional Hanukkah fare.
Considered a staple of Jewish culture, the deep-fried pancake is made from grated potato, topped with condiments such as sour cream and served for Hanukkah dinner. Fredman said his culinary experiments for the Jewish festival of light aspire to restore the latke back to its original conception as the embodiment of light by using ingredients inspired from stories in the Bible.
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Since the oil in the latke is not strongly associated with light in the today’s world — mostly thanks to modern technology — Yale’s Jewish chaplain and head of the Slifka Center, Rabbi James Ponet ’68, wants to explore other ways food can still represent Jewish religious origins. In honor of the Slifka Center’s 13th anniversary, Ponet said this year’s celebrations will offer a unique rendition on the Jewish Festival of Lights, including a photo gallery featuring the theme of light, various displays of indoor illumination ranging from candles to LEDs — and, of course, new-age latkes.
“The latke tradition is probably close to a thousand years old,” Ponet said. “But we’re perched to begin the exploration of a new culinary tradition.”
Light and dark
Ponet, who has been a chaplain at Yale for 27 years, said he wanted to reinvent the Hanukkah spread to better reflect the role of light in various religious contexts. He argued that scientific advances in the past hundred years have modernized the traditional ways of conceiving light, making the latke less representative of its original metaphorical purpose.
Latkes, which are fried in olive oil, are tied to the Hanukkah story in which Jews in the temple of Jerusalem were able to miraculously keep lamps burning for eight nights after recapturing the temple from invading Syrians. The oil used in the latke is symbolic of the lamp’s oil, Ponet said; eating a latke allows one to “ingest the physical sub-stratum of light.”
Fredman said his culinary experiments for the Jewish Festival of Lights aspire to restore the latke back to its original conception as the embodiment of light inspired from stories in the Bible.
Stepping into the Food Emporium supermarket as soon as he returned to Manhattan, Fredman searched the market for two hours, adding items like golden beets and red beets to his list of light-infused ingredients. The different colored beets, he said, symbolize the separation of light and dark in the Biblical story of creation.
Ponet said he began working with Fredman and Bun Lai, head chef at the sushi restaurant Miya’s, at the beginning of the fall to cook up a new kosher cuisine for Hanukkah. Lai, a self-proclaimed gourmand who enjoys incorporating culture into food, joined with Ponet in an effort to “revolutionize” Jewish cuisine, Ponet said with a laugh.
Before they joined forces, Lai said he had been hard at work for this past year and a half in an effort to create a new Jewish cuisine — including “a sushi-based dish that attempted to capture what it is to be Jewish,” as he put it in an e-mail message.
While pursuing his personal project at Miya’s, which uses sushi to celebrate subcultures of America, Lai said he was introduced to Ponet through a friend. It made perfect sense, Lai added, that the two enthusiasts work and inspire each other.
cooked to perfection
For Fredman, who is majoring in humanities, cooking is a hobby. Ponet, who knew Fredman through his involvement in Slifka, said he thought the Berkeley College junior could help in redesigning the holiday meal given his culinary expertise and devotion to Judaism.
Ponet said he was originally unsure what form the food would take, only knowing that he wanted a new spread that embraced the theme of light. During the creative process, Fredman and Lai said that Ponet provided them with Jewish stories and metaphors, which the two chefs then tried to apply to food.
But Lai explained that this project, for him, will take a while — roughly a year — to perfect.
“It takes a lot of time because religiously — and not exclusive to Judaism — eating is holy,” he said. “It’s really that important.”
When Lai told Fredman on Nov. 24 that he would not be able to help him prepare the menu for the Slifka Center’s Hanukkah dinner, Fredman said he took the task upon himself. After 10 hours of working at his family’s kitchen in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Fredman said he came away with six “totally new” latkes.
While Fredman’s latkes are conventional in some ways — they are circular-shaped and fried in oil — he said they are made from nontraditional ingredients, ranging from golden beets to chickpeas to cinnamon-flavored apples. Each latke is also associated with a story or metaphor from the Hebrew Bible or the Talmud, a collection of ancient Rabbinical essays, Fredman said.
The self-labeled “amateur” chef said he views his work as bringing new life to Jewish cuisine.
“Light is a complex thing and there’s so much written about it in the text,” Fredman said. “Things sometimes lose their interest so it’s important to bring in new concepts to make things new and exciting again.”
a new age of latkes
Fredman said he had long conversations about the symbolism of light and food with Rabbi Shlomo Shloman ’89, who leads the Maimonedes Society at Yale.
Food, Shlomo said, can allow one to gain appreciation of their culture.
“There’s no doubt that eating is an important Jewish tradition,” he said. “And the food we eat has a traditional, even mystical significance.”
Although Fredman created six latkes in total, he and Ponet agreed to only unveil three at next week’s Shabbat dinner. (Preparing latkes in large quantities is quite difficult, they said.) One is a latke made from spinach with a pastry outside; another a potato and thyme latke; and the third a desert latke made from sweet potatoes and apples and flavored with cinnamon.
Fredman’s food will be part of a traditional Shabbat dinner involving roast chicken, rice and vegetables, prepared for the more than 150 people expected to attend the holiday meal, according to Timothy Frye, the head chef at Slifka. Since Hanukkah falls during winter break this year, the Slifka Center will celebrate the holiday next Friday, a few weeks in advance.
That day, in less than eight hours, Frye said his staff — in collaboration with Fredman — will prepare 70 of each of Fredman’s latkes, and more than 200 in all.
Although he said he originally wanted to “move beyond” the latke, Ponet said he views Fredman’s work as a step in the right direction in provoking thought about the light is conceived. Impressed with Fredman’s work so far, he added that the culinary revolution is far from over.
“This is a first step in what I think will be a process that takes many years,” Ponet said. “Traditions don’t change overnight.”