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Are Bialys Having a Moment?

Who knew it would take 40 years to taste the yeasty onion-strewn bread of my youth again? When I spotted some, next to the bagels on a generous buffet table at a recent event, I had to pinch myself.
[additional-authors]
October 20, 2021

Moving to Los Angeles so my husband could pursue his career meant leaving family, friends and the city in which I was born—the one with Yankee Stadium, Coney Island, and pizza by Ray. To add insult to injury, I also gave up bialys. Who knew it would take 40 years to taste the yeasty onion-strewn bread of my youth again? When I spotted some, next to the bagels on a generous buffet table at a recent event, I had to pinch myself. For a girl from the Bronx, it was my madeleine moment.

The occasion for the buffet was the opening of Bagel + Slice, a new food concept in Highland Park. The brainchild of chef/food scientist/entrepreneur Brad Kent, co-founder of the Blaze pizza chain, the earth-friendly eatery is set to serve two foods that people adore—pizza and bagels. With a tip of the hat to his New Jersey, Jewish heritage, Kent also decided to put bialys on the menu. He had been tinkering with a recipe for years.

“I always felt bad for the poor bialy baker. He was probably some poor schnook at the lowest rung of the bakery hierarchy, undoubtedly working at a station in the very back,” explains Kent. “A dozen bagels, please, and toss in four bialys,” was not an unusual order back in the day. Bialys were an afterthought.

The grandson of a Jewish deli-owner, Kent went deep once he decided to pay homage to a childhood favorite. The finished product, the size of a small bagel, is made with his special combination of regenerative rye and organic wheat, hand-cut onions, water and salt. It gets a three-day ferment, a hand-made hole, and most importantly, it’s baked briefly at super high temperatures—kind of like a pizza! Though sublime, the result is not exactly what I remembered from my 1950s Bronx childhood. I’m not sure anything made today could taste the same. But I wanted to find out.

Many of those who survived, like the Kossar family, migrated to New York—carrying a taste for bialys in their DNA.

My search took me back to the source, New York City, bialy capitol of the world since Jews were more or less eliminated from Bialystok in Poland. Many of those who survived, like the Kossar family, migrated to New York—carrying a taste for bialys in their DNA. My first pit-stop was Kossar’s, the original gangster of bialy shops on the Lower East Side. After walking through the storied streets of our ancestors—the ones with names like Hester, Orchard, and Essex—I reached the holy spot on Grand Street. It was transformed. In place of the schmutzy storefront where tired, old Jews in dusty aprons took your order and filled it fast—who had time to waste?—there were tasteful black and white subway tiles on the walls and a shiny, up-to-date, bright red logo in the window. The counter people were not in such a rush. And they were polite! The younger Kossars had rebranded for the Instagram age but the ambience left me cold.

How were the bialys? Kossar’s current product is a facsimile: about 3-inches wide, the bialys are perfect circles with less of everything: fewer onions, a couple of poppy seeds, tiny air pockets, no blistered spots. It felt more like a mini-bagel than a true bialy, though the price was right. The mostly Chinese and Hispanic clientele were happily munching them with a schmear on top, in the hygienic, outdoor seating area, ironically across from the original Settlement House on Eldridge Street.

To reach back for context I turned to former New York Times restaurant critic Mimi Sheraton and her book “The Bialy Eaters.” In the late 1990s the reporter travelled the world to track down the remaining Jews of Bialystok—a voyage that included stops in Israel, Buenos Aires, Paris and Melbourne. She learned that all roads lead back to Bialystok, now the tenth largest city in Poland. Back in the day, when 65% of the city’s population was Jewish, inhabitants were affectionally known throughout Europe as “Bialystoker kuchen fressers” for their love of that food. The humble bialy was knit into their DNA.

Cajoled by his daughter, he once even tasted bialys in California, but he wasn’t impressed. “Without poppy seeds they are ridiculous,” he sighed. 

“No one born in Bialystok can forget kuchen,” explained Jerusalem baker Ariel Shamir, a survivor. “Rich Jews ate it as bread with the meal; poor Jews ate it as the meal. Cajoled by his daughter, he once even tasted bialys in California, but he wasn’t impressed. “Without poppy seeds they are ridiculous,” he sighed.

Renowned international attorney, diplomat and former Bialystoker Dr. Samuel Pisar was thinking of bialys in Paris when he gave Sheraton an interview toward the end of the last century.

“I search for them everywhere I go. It’s not the taste so much as the symbol. It reminds me of coming home safely from school in the late afternoons of long dark seasons [in Poland]. I can still hear the women selling hot kuchen in big straw baskets as they went through the street yelling at the top of their lungs, ‘Kuchen, heisse [hot] kuchen.’ My grandmother… would spread butter or cream cheese on the back of the kuchen without cutting it open, and I would munch it as I went out to play with friends.”Pisar would be happy to know that thanks to a new generation of bakers, the intrepid bialy is making a comeback in America. Here in 21st-century Los Angeles, seekers can once again find a soulful bialy suffused with the taste of home.

How to eat a bialy: Once you do find a great bialy, here is how the experts recommend you eat it. Never slice in half. Toast it whole and then slather with butter—no cream cheese, smoked fish, or red onion allowed! Those rich trimmings would only distract from the distinct taste of bread. Bialys can be stored in the freezer—just toast to defrost. They should toast up light and fluffy with a thin crackly crust and onions that cannot be contained by that crater in the center. They will make a mess. Enjoy!

My research results: In addition to Bagel + Slice in Highland Park, the new Wise Bros. deli in Culver City makes a very good version with lots of onions and poppy seeds and a satisfying blast of char on the crust. In New York right now, you won’t be disappointed by Mark’s Off Madison started by the former chef of Barney’s New York, who also stocks excellent smoked fish. 


Los Angeles food writer Helene Siegel is the author of 40 cookbooks, including the “Totally Cookbook” series and “Pure Chocolate.” She runs the Pastry Session blog. During COVID-19, she shared Sunday morning baking lessons over Zoom with her granddaughter, eight-year-old Piper of Austin, Texas.

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