How the Comfort of German Potato Pancakes Helped Me Adjust to a New Life in Rural Pennsylvania

This humble recipe is a popular meatless meal in Germany. 

Nadia Hassani
Photo: Courtesy Photo/Eric Wolfinger

There are few German dishes that I haven't cooked since I set out to explore the cuisine of my native country almost 20 years ago. One recipe I keep going back to, and the main course I prepare the most often, is potato pancakes. For me, they are the epitome of German comfort food.

I grew up on potato pancakes prepared by my grandmother, who often made them when I went to her house after school. My mother worked full-time and wasn't home when school ended at midday. As there were no school lunches in those days in Germany, my grandmother living halfway between the school and our apartment was an ideal arrangement.

While most people associate German cuisine with meat and more meat, potato pancakes—called reibekuchen or kartoffelpuffer in the north of Germany, and reiberdatschi in the south—are a notable exception and a well-known vegetarian dish. It's a humble weekday meal, dating back to the era when meat was a luxury in many households and served only on Sundays.

Vegetarian dishes like potato pancakes are also a remnant of the time when many Germans, regardless of their social status, would not eat meat during the 40 days of Lent between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. But my grandmother mainly cooked those meatless dishes out of frugality. Frankly, I am not sure whether my grandmother's ingenious trick of adding the starch back into the potatoes after squeezing out the liquid was to save a couple of tablespoons of flour (or rolled oats, which are sometimes used in German potato pancakes), significant in the days of shortages, or whether it was done for reasons of texture.

During the first three years after I immigrated to the United States, I lived in New York City, and German food was the last thing on my mind. But that changed when I met my husband, who was a widower with two young children. For love, I moved from the bustling city with its multitude of ethnicities and restaurants to a tiny hamlet surrounded by a monoculture of Pennsylvania Dutch farmers.

I struggled to find my place in the void that the death of the children's mother had left. As I became an adoptive mother to the children and settled into the vast and unknown terrain of parenting, the kitchen became my stronghold, the place where I felt the most comfortable and where I knew my way around. I started cooking some of my grandmother's recipes. It did more than put dinner on the table for my new family; it was also a way to assert my cultural identity and heritage and introduce my new family to it.

Happily, my potato pancakes were a way we connected. My husband is Jewish, and for him and the children, latkes, which are very similar, were familiar food that even our son, who was a picky eater, would always gobble up happily. First, I only made potato pancakes for Hanukkah, but when I realized they were a hit, I started making them more often, year-round.

For me, heritage cooking is about valuing the traditions of previous generations by keeping them alive, yet it does not mean they cannot and should not be adapted to our way of life. I don't recall my grandmother ever sitting down to eat with me, and for potato pancakes, it somewhat made sense because the dedicated cook is usually stuck at the stove frying. I deviated from that because it is important to me that we eat together. I pop the finished pancakes in the preheated oven, which allows me to serve the entire batch hot. I doubt my grandmother would approve of this waste of energy, and I am sure that the idea of using the food processor instead of grating the potatoes by hand would also not have met with her approval. But then again, she might like the idea that I am using the potato skins. Maybe it will be my version of Grandma Lydia's recipe for German potato pancakes that my children will hold onto.

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German Potato Pancakes

German Potato Pancakes
Eric Wolfinger

Using starchy potatoes is essential for making German potato pancakes. There is no flour in these potato pancakes so they're gluten-free. The natural starch from the potatoes binds the mixture together.

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