Background translated from Arutz Sheva's Hebrew site
Jewish communities traditionally eat foods made with oil on Hanukkah to commemorate the Miracle of the Lights - the small vessel of consecrated oil that burned for eight days in the Temple when the Maccabees returned to the holy site after defeating the Greeks.
Cheese and dairy foods are eaten to commemorate the story of the slaying of Greek general Holofernes by the courageous Judith, who gave him dairy foods to make him sleepy before summarily cutting off his head.
The rabbis say that despite there being no "kiddush" over wine on Hanukkah, the festive meals that accompany the holiday are meant to be opportunities to recall how the Holy One, Blessed be He, saves the Jews in every generation. The Maccabees' victory is that of the weak against the strong and numerous enemies of the Jewish people, the miracle of the oil is also the triumph of Torah's light.
Ashkenazic Jews eat "latkes", fried potato pancakes, but that is a fairly new custom by Jewish standards and only around for about 300 years, as potatoes were unknown before the discovery of America in the 15th century and for many years were too rare and expensive to reach European Jewish holiday tables.
Since Christmas and Hanukkah usually coincided (this year is a rare exception), Europe's Jews usually remained indoors, fearing the pogroms and other attacks that accompanied the season.
What did they eat? In Russia and Hungary, it was French toast, in Germany blintzes, Moroccan Jews ate sfenj, Lebanese Jews awamat, Yemenites had zalabia (all various types of fried dough puffs). Israelis adopted the round - once filled with jam, if at all, and now topped and/or filled with gourmet ideas - donut, despite valiant Anglo efforts to push the latke as an unsweetened, just as oily, alternative.
Below is the writer's never-fail potato latke recipe. adapted from the Jennie Grossinger Cookbook, an old and reliable favorite for the Jewish cook.
When making lots of latkes, it is better to work in batches. It is easy if you peel all the potatoes needed first, cut into pieces and keep in a bowl of water while making each batch.
3 cups (approximately) grated raw potatoes, drained
4 tbs. grated onion (medium onion)
1 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. pepper
1-2 tbs. 70% whole wheat flour
1/2 to 1 tbs. breadcrumbs
Grate the potatoes in a food processor, emptying into a strainer placed over a bowl that allows the liquid to drain. Grate the onion in the processor (no need to wash it in between) and then add the eggs and process for a few seconds to blend. Put drained potatoes, eggs, salt and pepper in a bowl, add flour (start with 1 tbs., add just enough to hold lightly together) and breadcrumbs - it depends on the potatoes, so the amount is inexact - and fry, using a slotted spoon to place in the pan, in hot oil on both sides. One can lower the flame and cover the pot (remove from the flame, if desired, when doing this) for two minutes to be sure the latkes are done on the inside. Drain on paper towels.
Best when fresh, but non-purists can make them in advance and reheat in the oven the same day.