You would be hard-pressed finding a cuisine that isn’t available in the Big Apple, one of the most diverse and interesting aspects of the melting pot city is the array of international influences. The New York City metropolitan area is home to the largest population of Jewish people outside of Israel, which makes it the perfect place to be introduced to Jewish cuisine. Here are some of the essential Jewish foods to try in NYC and some classic restaurants, bakeries and cafes to indulge in them.
My paternal grandfather was Jewish, escaping his German homeland to Australia at the beginning of WWII. He passed away before I was born and wasn’t particularly observant of his faith, so I never had much exposure to the culture or cuisine. I’ve always been curious to learn more about my heritage and food is a fun and accessible way to dive into new cultures.
My first knish experience was a cold and wet day on the Lower East Side. The warming, carb-loaded comfort food had me at the first bite. The hot squares of dough stuffed with onion and mashed potatoes and fried until golden were brought to New York by Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe and were sold from pushcarts in the early 20th century. Now there are knisheries like the historic Yonah Shimmel’s Knish Bakery, on the Lower East Side. Time has also seen new flavours developed – savoury and sweet. Get ’em while they’re hot!
Halva is a crumbly, sesame-paste (tahini) based fudge that makes the perfect dessert for someone who doesn’t have an overly sweet tooth. It is difficult to pinpoint the geographic origin of halva – the first known halva recipe to be documented in writing dates back to the 13th century Kitab al-Tabikh (Book of Dishes), and further recipes appeared in Moorish Spain during the same century. While it isn’t strictly Jewish food, you would be hard-pressed finding a Jewish deli in NYC that doesn’t sell this yummy sweet.
As Halva (also spelt halwa, halvah, halava, helva…) spread its wings and migrated across the Mediterranean and Central Asia, it was localised with regional ingredients including rosewater, pistachios, almonds, dates and coconut. Today in New York you will find a plethora of flavours available including chocolate. I love to eat it crumbled over creamy soft-serve ice cream from Seed + Mill at Chelsea Market. Eat it fresh and you’ll never buy the pre-packaged stuff again.
Like the knish, bagels arrived in New York in the late 19th-century with Eastern European immigrants. New arrivals that could not find work, often turned to selling bagels from pushcarts on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
Bagels are traditionally made with flour, salt, water, yeast and malt. The dough is boiled for a few seconds before it is baked which leads to a tough, shiny, caramel-coloured crust. During the 1970’s bagels finally made it out of their Jewish neighbourhoods into the mainstream. With that recipes were adapted to appeal to broader American tastes, in particular, the crusts became thinner and softer.
If you’re wondering about the “classic” bagel-cream cheese-lox combination, that was most certainly a Big Apple creation. At the turn of the 20th-century pushcart sellers pedalling lox, a brined and smoked salmon, moderated the saltiness of the fish by adding bread in the form of bagels and all-American cream cheese.
Places to eat
Places with heritage and heart, to sample Jewish food in NYC:
- Russ & Daughters’ Cafe – http://www.russanddaughterscafe.com/
- Katz’s Delicatessen – https://www.katzsdelicatessen.com/
- Yonah Shimmel’s Knishery – http://www.knishery.com/
- Barney Greengrass – https://www.barneygreengrass.com/
If you have a favourite place to eat or Jewish food in New York City, please share it with us in the comments.
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