Bringing home the bagel

It’s the water, or more precisely, the act of boiling that thickens the crust and transforms a satisfactory one into a chewy delight. Photo: M. Moorthy  

New York Magazine’s food blog predicts that this is the year of the bagel. In New York, fittingly so, as the city is considered to have the best bagels. But around the world? Chennai, for instance? You’d think it sounds quite ludicrous. But it’s not just New York natives, Polish immigrants or Jewish residents who can lay claim to this doughnut-like roll-with-a-hole. Chennai is slowly waking up to bagel-cream cheese-lox cravings.

For those unaware of the history behind this now-American bun, the present-day bagel, writes Maria Balinska in her book, The Bagel: The Surprising History Of A Modest Bread, was born in Poland and became a staple sometime between the 16th and 17th Century. There’s another theory that the bagel was created as a tribute to Jan Sobieski, the king of Poland. But that’s the beauty of gastronomic lore — it varies from city to city, from community to community. How, it made its way to the U.S. is quite unclear; it’s said that it migrated along with east European immigrants. And in 1907, The International Beigel Bakers Union was formed, according to The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, Volume 2, monopolising the production.

Around 2012, when George started his business in Kodaikanal, he also started making bagels. “I had a wood-fired oven and I thought ‘why not?’. My friends were quite excited at the prospect of fresh bagels,” he says. George’s Gourmet Kitchen in the hill town now makes a variety including his favourites — the fusion chilli flakes bagel, an onion-garlic bagel along with the traditional seed-studded bagel. Bagels are made according to Jewish dietary laws and are hence boiled before baked — a belief that it has been blessed. George follows the tradition as well. “The dough rests overnight, which is what gives it flavour. Then I let it rise, shape it by hand before boiling it for a couple of minutes — this gives the outer skin, a distinct shine — and finally bake it,” he explains. A good bagel, he says, should be ideally eaten, “fresh, when it’s still warm. It should have a nice crust.” Pausing, he adds with a laugh, “Unfortunately mine gets delivered to Chennai overnight, on Thursdays, in plastic bags. The best day to eat it would be Fridays.” George’s Gourmet Kitchen supplies bagels to Tryst Cafe (Neelankarai), Gormei Market (Mylapore, Adyar, Kilpauk and Neelankarai), Epicure (Ispahani Centre, Nungambakkam) and Five Star Classic (Thiruvanmiyur).

In a video, The American Chemical Society breaks down the elements of what makes a good-tasting bagel, or more precisely, what makes New York bagels superior. It’s the water, or more precisely, the act of boiling that thickens the crust and transforms a satisfactory one into a chewy delight. It’s what most bakeries in the city that make bagels are getting right.

Stylishly set in Egmore, Nicky’s Café and Fine Pastries, too swears by the chewy bagel with a French bread-like soft centre. “We make three types — multigrain or everything bagel as we call it, a cinnamon and raisin bagel, and the plain bagel,” says, founder-chef, Nicky Mahboobani. Their bagels, he explains, go best with cream cheese, of which they have three varieties as well: pepper, scallion and plain. The reason Nicky’s started doing bagels was a desire to bring something new to the city, and something familiar, for people who have travelled the world and enjoyed the bagel in its truest form. Nicky’s used to make and stock bagels earlier. But since their shelf life is very limited (it can become inedible in less than a day), they stopped for a while and began taking advance orders. But that might change soon. “We’re developing a small bread section and are planning to keep a small batch for those interested.”

You might have recognised the bagel from a Seinfeld episode, where bumbling Kramer gets a call after a 12-year strike, at a former job at H&H bagels, ends. In true Kramer style, he goes back on strike and sabotages the bagel machine. Now, H&H, which has been around since 1972, is a true New York institution, like Murray’s Bagels, which only recently reversed its strict no-toasting policy. H&H’s closing even prompted regular President Obama to remark it as “shocking”. (It also makes a brief appearance in Woody Allen’s Manhattan Murder Mystery, Friends and Sex and the City.)

Bagels are best paired with lox (smoked salmon) and a ‘schmear’ of cream cheese. It’s a time-tested New York tradition, in the line of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade or the ball dropping on Times Square, or as much as pop culture would inform us so. Following the same tradition, the Old Madras Baking Company (OMBC) too offers an ‘everything’ bagel with just a ‘schmear’ of cream cheese. There’s no lox, although they do offer an impressive array of cold cuts. Kamalika Krishmy who manages the Adyar branch, explains what goes into making an ‘everything’ bagel. “The crust is topped with flax, poppy, and black and white sesame seeds and the bagel contains onion powder. Team it with cream cheese and coffee, you have a solid breakfast.” As with its restrictive shelf life, OMBC too produces a limited amount — around seven in Adyar and 10 to 15 in the Alwarpet branch. Kamalika is of the opinion that “a good bagel cannot be eaten the way it is. It has to be toasted to bring out its crispy and chewy texture.” OMBC begins its bagel baking by about 9 a.m. and it’s almost sold out by 4 p.m.

Carbivores in Chennai certainly have a variety to choose from, what with star hotel bakeries and standalones flooding the market with these unique chewy rolls. If all goes well, bagels may just become a breakfast favourite in the city.

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Printable version | Jul 29, 2021 3:43:11 AM |

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