Inside New York's Cult of the Bialy

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Baking bialys at Harlem's Hot Bread Kitchen. [Photographs: Rabi Abonour]

Forget about the bagel. Crusty yet pliant and fragrant with a pocket of sweet but pungent sautéed onions, the bialy should be world famous. Just ask Mimi Sheraton, the former New York Times restaurant critic who saw fit to write a book on the subject, or any of the roll's devotees you'll find waiting on line at Kossar's or Hot Bread Kitchen for a fresh one that only calls for a swipe of butter. For them, the unboiled bialy is the true bread of New York City city.

Originally from the obscure city of Bialystock, Poland, where it was the everyday food of a marginalized people, in New York it's become the object of adoration that few breads can match. Bialy love may not be widespread, but it is fierce.

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"The bialy is more of a secret love," Jane Ziegelman, the director of the Tenement Museum's culinary program, explained. "Everyone knows you can love a bagel. Not everyone knows you can love a bialy."

So it was in 2014. As spiffed-up modern bagel boutiques made the bagel the talk of the town, the bialy was all but ignored. And that's a shame, really, because it's every bit as delicious. Its slender profile makes more balanced sandwiches. And unlike the bagel, which loses a reason to live after a few hours, the bialy is practically designed for toasting. It's good plain the next day, and even better when toasted and buttered.

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"Why do people love bialys? Because it's flour, water, salt, and yeast baked with onion," says Mark Straussman of Freds Cafe, which makes the city's best bagels and one of its best bialys.

That primal appeal is clear, but the bialy (which, yes, can also be made with garlic and poppy seeds) has many benefits. They're crusty and chewy, most of all near the central indentation and the bottom, but just enough so that they're still soft and pliant. And the onions' depth of the flavor—something that allowed impoverished Jews to stretch otherwise plain flour into a meal—cannot be underestimated.

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However, the very thing that makes them great may have been what handicapped them here in the States. Americans lump bialys together with bagels, but the bread really belong to what bread expert Andrew Coe calls "that great, forgotten tradition of Jewish rolls" and, more specifically, onion breads. "There's a whole bunch of Jewish breads that involve onions, not just the bialy," Coe elaborated, "and those didn't make it into the American mainstream, either."

This has not stopped today's bialy-eaters, a few of whom have taken a new interest in spreading the bialy mission. They're intent on getting the bialy its day in the sun.

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"Growing up in New York, we had every kind of food. But my father was from the west side," Dave Zablocki recalled, "and we'd always come down to the Lower East Side to get pickles, bialys, and Chinese pork burns."

Raised in Flushing, Queens, Zablocki is one of the new owners Kossar's Bialys & Bagels, the historic store that is the center of the bialy-verse. He and his partners purchased the store in 2013, intent on restoring it to its former glory.

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"The place that the bialy came from and the people who came from that place don't exist anymore," Evan Giniger, another owner, said. "They were very rapidly wiped out [by the Holocaust.]"

"New York is this lifeboat of people that were running away from something," Zoblocki chimed in. "They all wound up here, bringing little pieces of potentially extinct cuisine and culture."

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By the turn of the millennium, the bialy was, as Sheraton wrote, going the way of Nesselrode Pie. Even her beloved Kossar's, she bemoaned, was losing its touch. In the following years, the city's oldest bialy bakery closed as Kossar's continued its painful decline. Midwood's Chiffon Cake Center alone carried the dimming torch. Incidentally, Sheraton's lamentations would inspire the first of the city's new era of bialy lovers to bring the bread back.

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The bialy's fortunes changed in the mid-2000s, when Hot Bread Kitchen, a social enterprise masked as a bakery, was asked to participate in the New Amsterdam Market. Their line of breads were, and are, inspired by the immigrant women they employ. But as a farmer's market established to honor New York's old food traditions, the New Amsterdam called for something different. It called for the bialy.

"As a bread obsessive, I was fascinated by those undercooked doughy pucks with pink onions," Jessamyn Rodriguez, one of Hot Bread's founders, told me. "After I read Mimi's seminal book, I started my quest to develop a product that satisfied New Yorker's sense of what a bialy should be and was crunchy, dark, and delicious, like the ones consumed in old New York."

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Hot Bread began by selling their bialys at New Amsterdam, making thousands and always running out by mid-day. That demand showed Rodriguez how hungry New Yorkers were for a real bialy. However, Hot Bread was then working out of a shared space, which limited production. Biding her time, Rodriguez tinkered with their recipe and fielded Sheraton's input for nearly two years.

Finally, in 2009 (the same year that Freds launched their bialys), Hot Bread moved into a private kitchen at Harlem's La Marqueta, allowing them to expand their bread line. And there was no question about ramping up bialy production. "There is no other bread in our extensive line that elicits quite as many opinions as our bialys do," Rodriguez admitted. Sheraton, for one, thinks they're worth talking about, enough so to include in her forthcoming 1,000 Foods to Eat Before You Die.

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Today, Chiffon has been joined by a crop of bakeries and restaurants that take bialys seriously. Even Bushwick's Roberta's has gotten in on the action. Though their bialys are baked with disastrously sweet caramelized onions, their mere presence at America's hippest restaurant suggests that the bialy-eaters' grumbles have been heard.

Look past New York, though, and you will see that bialys have been staging a national comeback. The bread's spread is in part a consequence of the cross-country migration of New York and Northeast Jews in the 20th century. Many of them landed in Los Angeles, including the Philadelphia-born father of Evan Bloom, a co-founder of Wise Sons. Many of the sources I've spoken with, from Straussman to Zoblocki, shared memories of a parent or relative who "always got bialys at the bagel store." Bloom was no exception. But for Wise Sons, adding bialys to the menu was a pragmatic—not sentimental—choice.

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"We weren't prepared to, nor interested in, making our own bagels. I didn't grow up eating a ton of bialys, but they were always my dad's favorite, and it seemed like something that might be easier for us to make," Bloom explained. But the bialy has come to define their business, and to this day they routinely sell more bialys than bagels.

"People were legitimately excited and started coming in just to pick up bialys. We get a lot of baby boomers who grew up eating them at home and are like, 'oh my God, I haven't had a good bialy since...'" Bloom elaborated. "It's cool to be able to bring those memories back. We never expected it to quite pick up like it did. It's fun to see them, all the sudden, popping up in all kinds of restaurants."

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Today, bialys are being adopted at celebrated bakeries across the country, from Los Angeles, at the takeout annex of the sceney restaurant Gjelina, to Ann Arbor, where they've been selling them at Zingerman's Bakehouse since 2001. Practicality—unlike bagel dough, bialy dough is not boiled before baking—and nostalgia have been a boon, but the love that the bialy's devotees have for the bread is likely the roll's greatest asset. Consider why Zingerman's keeps baking bialys despite low customer demand.

In 1992, Frank Carrollo, then a managing partner at Monahan's Seafood Market, was tapped by the partners at Zingerman's Deli to open their bakery. Carollo, who was raised in a Sicilian-Austrian house in Detroit, wasn't a baker, so they put him under the tutelage of Mike London, a Jewish baker from Brooklyn. After Carollo spent two five-week sessions with him over the summer, the Zingerman's crew brought London out to Michigan for five days. London, he had learned, wasn't that interested in most of his bread. But he went crazy for his bialys.

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"By the second day that we baked in Michigan, we had put in a couple of incredibly long days. Mike had a little notebook with rubber bands around it that he carried in his back pocket. And he leafed through all these pages and said, 'I'm going to make bialys with you today, I haven't had them in a long time,'" Carollo told me.

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"Anyway, he made those bialys, sent one of our people to the store to get some unsalted butter, and proceeded to eat about seven of them in a row."