Everybody knows what a bagel is, but what about a bialy? “It’s like a bagel without a hole,” will say people who’ve had one. And these people have a point: bialys are generally sold in bagel shops, they’re good vehicles for cream cheese, they’re round, and their centers aren’t hollow. Both bialys and bagels come from Poland and are Jewish staples best consumed on New York’s Lower East or Upper West Side. But it’s not that simple…
Bialy is short for bialystoker kuchen, and is a kind of bun hailing from the Polish city of Białystok. Once upon a time, Bialystok’s Jewish population ate them pretty much at every meal. This brought on the mockery of the rest of the country, which didn’t quite understand the microclimatic obsession and called the Jews “Bialystoker kuchen fresser” — bialy eaters. If you really wanna know everything about bialys, I’d recommend Mimi Sheraton’s The Bialy Eaters: The Story of a Bread and a Lost World, an entire book dedicated to the forgotten and misunderstood little bun that manages to keep its readers interested despite its very narrow scope. Here are some highlights:
- It’s unclear when exactly bialys were invented, though it was most likely some time in the 19th century. They were brought to NYC by Bialystok émigrés around 1920.
- Unlike bagels, bialys are made with a dough that’s much closer to a bread dough (albeit a bit denser, like for soft pretzels), and are simply baked without being boiled first. And there’s only one traditional topping combo: poppy seeds and onions.
- You won’t find bialys in Bialystok nowadays! The Jewish population has all but vanished since WWII, and the bialys disappeared with them. A store that sold something like them opened in Bialystok about 20 years ago, but is now closed. Ironically, it was named… New York Bagels.
- Many Polish Jews who didn’t come from Bialystok have never heard of a bialy. Describe it to them, and they’ll tell you it’s a pletzel.
- The original bialy was larger than today’s exemplars (i.e., about 23 cm / 9″ in diameter), and was baked in a wood-fire oven. Sheraton likes to conjecture that it was invented by a baker who dropped a pletzel on the floor; someone stepped on it, and instead of throwing it away, the baker decided to top it with onions and poppy seeds and bake it. Yum!
- The well at the center of the bialy used to be impressed with a small rolling pin. While people don’t use rolling pins anymore, it’s still important to have thin, compacted dough in the center so that it becomes crisp when it cooks.
- Fun trivia: Esperanto was also invented in Bialystok.
- And now get ready for your whole value system to be shattered: YOU DON’T SLICE A BIALY. This kind of makes sense when you think about it — what kind of sandwich roll has a thin crisp center? Instead, you spread butter or soft white cheese on top. Other accompaniments, though less common, are also reported by various bone fide Bialystokers: schmaltz herring, smoked fish, pastrami, kosher sausage, and halvah (this last one on the side, not on top).
Equipped with all this historical knowledge, I decide to take a field trip to the Lower East Side to taste some of New York’s last bialys.
The name that comes up most often in New York bialy discussions is Kossar’s — the place is even mentioned at length in Mimi Sheraton’s book. Opened in 1936, Kossar’s is now the oldest remaining Bialy bakery in the United States, though it has changed location and ownership a few times. Now on Grand Street, it was last renovated at the beginning of 2016, and reopened with a brand new menu. While the website proudly advertises 6 different kinds of bialys (original with onion, garlic, sesame, olive, whole wheat with onion, sundried tomato & pesto), there was only one kind available when I went there: the original, which by the way isn’t all that original if it’s not sprinkled with poppy seeds too. And if I expected to be welcomed by the smell of bialys (or any other bread) fresh from the oven, here’s another disappointment: the bialys are cold, and no one’s rushing around by the oven to prepare hot new batches. The bialy itself is somewhat disappointing. The baking is very uneven; some rolls are golden brown while others are very pale, the centers are sometimes indented and sometimes not at all but either way it’s never as crispy as it should be. If Kossar’s sold baguettes and they were done with the same lack of consistency, nobody would buy any. That being said, once reheated, the bialys taste pretty good (they were rather insipid when cold). If you want to find out what Mimi Sheraton herself thinks of today’s bialys at Kossar’s, check out this article. Kossar’s also sells pletzels, an even bigger rarity.
Walk a few blocks north and you’ll soon hit Katz’s, the legendary deli on Houston Street. Founded in 1888, it’s famous the world over for its pastrami sandwiches, not for its bialys. In fact, I gotta be the only person going to Katz’s for the bialys. And there’s a good reason for that: they don’t make bialys! They do sell some, made by Bell, but so does FreshDirect, whence you can order them from the comfort of your home. Bell, however, comes with some creds of its own: Bell has been in Brooklyn since 1947; just like Kossar’s, bialys are the product they started with and became famous for; Bell also owns the bialy.com domain (ain’t we all jealous) and has become one of the largest bialy bakeries in the country, while still making its products (somewhat) by hand. The Bell bialys are smaller than Kossar’s and almost plain, with only a couple of little onion pieces and no poppy seeds. The texture’s closer to a bagel, and of course they can’t be super fresh, since they come prepacked in a plastic bag. Still, they do lend themselves well to reheating, and the centers are thin enough that they can get crispy when toasted. Back to Katz’s… I’m also probably the only patron to have read Sheraton’s book on bialys, so I know something they don’t: pastrami tastes great with bialys. So at least I leave the deli with half a pound of the very best warm, hand-cut pastrami.