Bagels: The origin, popularity and varieties of the circular bread with the whole in the middle

My family’s roots can be traced to Germany, Romania, Russia and Poland. But, culturally, we’re Jewish, too. For most of our large, casual family gatherings, you can rest assure that one item always plays a starring role on the dining table – bagels.

There may be sesame, poppy seed, onion, raisin or everything bagels. But, there will be bagels.

Sliced BagelUsually, they’re served with lox and cream cheese for breakfast or brunch, or with corned beef or pastrami for lunch.

No matter the variety or toppings, the feelings that pour forth whenever I see bagels piled high on a table are always the same – comfort, familiarity, tradition, connection, and togetherness.

Somehow the round bread with the whole in the middle brings us a bit closer together that day, while also uniting us with those who’ve come before us. Over the generations, our family has moved throughout Europe and immigrated to countries like the US, France, and Israel. But, to this day, our culture, our traditions and, yes, our food tie us together. And, that holds true for bagels, too.

But, where do bagels come from? While they’re found at Jewish bakeries, delis and restaurants across the country – from New York to California – are they a “Jewish” food? The quick and easy answer would be “yes” as they’re associated with New York Jews who immigrated from Europe, especially Poland. But, that’s just the abbreviated version of the bagel story.

The origin of the circular bread with the whole in the middle

I thought a bagel was just a bagel until I met my husband. Now, having been married to a New Yorker (and his family) for many years, I know that all bagels aren’t all the same.

Most bagels are boiled and then baked. And, the water used to boil them makes a difference, too. Whenever I’m in New York, I’m reminded that the best bagels can be found there. Why? Because of the water.

Rows of BagelsAccording to TheKitchn.com, boiled and baked bagels typically have a chewy crust and are slightly dense inside. That’s because the boiling process sets the crust, allowing the bagel to rise while it bakes in the oven.

But, the bagel wasn’t created in New York. Rather, the modern version of the baked or boiled bagel is said to originally hail from Poland.

According to Slate.com, the origins of the bagel can be trace back to King Jan Sobieski, who in 17th Century Poland, became the first king not to limit the production of white bread and obwarzanke (bagel-like rolls) to the Krakow Bakers Guild. With other bakers free to get in on the bread-baking action, Jewish people were able to bake their own bread. Shortly thereafter, a  “beugel” (Austrian word for stirrup) was created to honor King Sobieski’s valiant efforts to save Austria from Turkish invaders – and the rest is bread history.

Slate.com also notes that, as bagels became popular in Krakow, Jewish bakers made them in their own bakeries to help ensure they were made following their own dietary laws. The bagel “craze” hit American shores when Eastern European immigrants began craving it – and them baking them – in their new homeland, making New York City’s Lower East side a hotbed for bagels – then and now.

Today, it’s rare to not see bagel shops in almost every US neighborhood – chains and independent stores alike.

The multicultural growth and popularity of the “bagel”

These days, I think it’s safe to say that bagels are enjoyed by practically everyone and everywhere.

In North America alone, there are two main type of bagels – the New York-style bagel and the Montreal-style bagel. According to Wikipedia, the New York-style bagel contains salt and malt, and is boiled in water prior to baking in a standard oven. The smaller, crunchier and sweeter Montreal-style bagel contains malt and sugar (without any salt), and is boiled in honey-sweetened water before baking in a wood-fired oven.

photo 5Of course, living in Chicago, I have to note that Chicago-style bagels are baked or baked with steam. Steamed bagels aren’t boiled. Instead, they’re baked in an oven equipped with a steam injection system. Steamed bagels tend to be softer and less chewy than a New York-style bagel.

Around the world, Polish bagels and Romania covrigi are typically topped with sesame and poppy seeds. While the Austrian beugel is flavored with caraway seeds. And, in Finland, vesirinkeli are available in sweet and savory varieties, and often eaten toasted with butter.

In Israel, Jerusalem bagels are ring-shaped and larger and a bit thinner than New York-style bagels. They’re also usually only topped with sesame seeds.

Credit: Bagel & Bagel

Credit: Bagel & Bagel

BagelK brought the first kosher bagels to Japan in 1989. It offered its bagels in flavors like green tea, chocolate, maple nut, and banana nut. In Japan, Bagel & Bagel currently offers its bagels in traditional varieties as well as ones that cater more to the Japanese palette like soy milk and edamame, green tea and white chocolate, and milk tea.

It’s clear that bagels aren’t just served alongside Jewish deli trays piled high with lox, deli meat, tuna salad, and cream cheese tubs.

In the US, McDonald’s offers two bagel sandwiches on its breakfast menu – along with a variety made with its McMuffins, McGriddles and biscuits. Panera Bread, the popular US-based, fast-casual restaurant, offers more than 10 varieties of bagels, including cinnamon crunch, asiago, blueberry, chocolate chip, and cinnamon swirl. You even can find bagels listed as the “classic New York breakfast” on the menu of London-based chain, Pret A Manger.

In France, the land of the baguette. You can find bagels at a variety of bakeries and restaurants. In fact, according to Velib (the bike rental company that also dispenses helpful tourist advice), “many fast food outlets in Paris make their own specialty bun, so much that we can find one round every corner.” Its list of the top 6 bagels in Paris includes places with “bagel” in their name, such as Bagels and Brownies, Bagel Tom, and Ari’s Bagels. Bagels and Brownies features bagel sandwiches filled with a variety of meats and cheeses, with names that hail back to North American cities like New-YorkDétroit, Santa Fé and Hawaï. There, you can choose from varieties such as nature (plain), sésame (sesame seed), céréales (multi-grain), pivot (poppy seed), oignons (onion), and fromage (cheese).

Popular bagel serving suggestions

Credt: The Bagel Restaurant.

Credt: The Bagel Restaurant.

A New York-style bagel is typically enjoyed with cream cheese and lox, topped with tomato, onion and sometimes capers, too.  But, the options are really endless.

As told by Slate.com, the morning combination of bagel, cream cheese and lox is an American creation that rose in popularity thanks to the advertising efforts of Joseph Kraft for Philadelphia Cream Cheese back in the 1950s. The effort helped make the combinination “an American alternative to the other Sunday tribology of bacon, eggs and toast.”

For breakfast, bagels also are sliced in half and filled with eggs, cheese, sausage and/or bacon.

Three bagelsBut, bagels aren’t a stranger to the lunch menu. For the midday meal, bagels are usually served with thinly sliced meats and/or cheese, or even with peanut butter and jelly or Nutella.

Of course, bagels are delicious on their own. And, I’m sure there are purists out there that prefer bagels plain or just toasted with butter.

These days, my sons beg me to send them to school with a cold, packed lunch (versus eating the hot lunch). Top on their lunch request list is bagels – with cream cheese, soynut butter and jelly, or salami.

For that reason and more, I’m thankful for bagels and proud of their continued place of importance in our lives – in our culture, on our tables and in our lunchboxes.

Do you like eating bagels? Are they a big part of your family meals, too? What is your favorite bagel variety? What do you like to pile on it? Which style of bagel do you prefer – New York, Chicago, Montreal or something else? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

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