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Boiled or baked? A bagel investigation

by harry May 18 2008

A proper everything bagel - elusive in Jerusalem

The bagel: arguably the most Jewish of foods. So much do Jews associate with bagels that the iconic round victuals have been employed as symbols for religious outreach almost as often as they've been used for anti-Semitic schmear - er, I mean smear.

One would expect the Jewish state to be bountiful with the most hole-y of breads, but alas, most of our Ashkenazi forefathers chose the land of America as their homeland and brought with them the bagel. There were many quiet bagel-less years in Jerusalem, unless you count of course the salty ring of baked dough available at your neighborhood grocery store or the ka'ek (known in Hebrew as a beigele), an oval shaped sweet Arabic bread served with a small packet of za'atar spices.

No bread product was actively marketed as an American bagel until the Jerusalem-based Bonkers Bagel empire came along in 1994, drawing lines of customers that ran around Zion Square and down Yoel Solomon St. But one can argue that the Bonkers wares were not real bagels at all. Any bagel purist will tell you that bagels must be boiled, not steamed like Bonkers did, before baking. But disgust with steamed bagels is not why Bonkers crumbled. Like all great empires, they made some bad decisions and just expanded too quickly, left today with just one branch in the Old City.

Next came Holy Bagel in 1999. Opened by the original owners of Bonkers, Holy Bagel's bagels became the only bagel in town. That is, until Eitan Saati, the co-owner of a bagel store in Albany, NY, opened Bagel Bite in Baka. Soon came Nina's Bagel Cafe and Tal Bagels expanded from Tel Aviv.

Opening soon at Ben Yehuda St. 11, near the corner of Ben Hillel St., is Sam Bagel's (sic), a new joint that Jerusalemite hopes makes better use of their dough than then they do of their possessive apostrophes.

Sam Bagel's - Will they sell proper punctuation?

Sam Bagel's: Will they sell proper punctuation?

The opening of yet another Jerusalem bagel store has been the impetus for Jerusalemite's first hard hitting piece of online journalism. Believing that a non-boiled bagel is nothing more than circular white bread with a hole in it, Jerusalemite conducted an investigation into Jerusalem's bagel shops and whether they boil their bagels or not.

Holy Bagel
Strangely, this place uses two different processes for its different branches. The branch near the Bus Station boils (having called them incognito, Jerusalemite received an invite to "come see"), while the branch on Jaffa Rd. in the city center operates a baking process that uses a lot of moisture to replicate boiling. Jerusalemite proposes that a taste test between the two branches may be in order.

Bagel Bite
Bagel Bite, a store whose origins begin in Albany, NY of all places, uses equipment imported from the United States. Bagel Bite's boiled bagels are by far the closest to New York bagels taste-wise and also and in terms of texture (slight crunchy outside, soft inside). Jerusalemite just wishes they were a bit bigger.

Jerusalemite first asked how many branches Bonkers Bagels had at their prime, and the worker who answered the phone claimed to not know. Next, Jerusalemite asked the hard question: boiled or baked? Again, the clerk claimed not to know what we were talking about. We asked the young man whether he knew what raw dough was. He confirmed that he did. Jerusalemite followed up with, "Now that you have raw dough, what do you do with it?" He answered, "I don't know, throw it?" Jerusalemite and the young man shared a laugh. Things quickly got serious as we asked, "If you do not know the process, then where do you get your bagels from? He answered, "Holy Bagel." For real.

Nina's Bagel Cafe
When Jerusalemite asked Nina's Bagel Cafe whether they boiled or baked their bagels, the woman who answered the phone didn't seem to understand the question. Jerusalemite simplified the question and asked "Do you cook them in water or air?" She replied, "We cook them in hair." Jerusalemite concludes that she must be French.

Tal Bagels
The original branch is in New York City. Of course they boil their bagels. An unboiled bagel in New York is simply heresy. Tal Bagels also resemble NY-style bagels, the shiny, chewier variety, rather the crunchy variety.

Additional reporting and photograph of Sam Bagel's (sic) by Ben Jacobson. Photo of everything bagel (top) courtesy of the dancing kids from flickr under a creative commons license.

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