beigale
Pretzels in Jerusalem. Photo by Emil Salman
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That round doughy bread with a hole in the middle, which goes so well with cream cheese, lox and Sunday mornings, is widely thought of as a Jewish food. But in Israel, the kind of bagels common to the New York area are largely considered an American food. Maybe it’s the lack of Sundays in Israel. (Well, okay, there are plenty of Sundays, but if it’s the first day of the work week it doesn’t really count.)

Instead of bagels, Israelis have “bageleh” (BAY-gal-eh), the word (from the Yiddish) for what pass as bagels around here. Bagelakh, to use the Yiddish plural, are pretzels. But though hard pretzels – like those sold by the Israeli company Beigel & Beigel – may seem to have little in common with bagels other than being made of wheat, think of soft pretzels and you will begin to discern the similarity.

“Soft pretzels are a lot like bagels: both are immersed in a liquid before baking and both are shiny on the outside and soft in the center,” reads one online pretzel recipe. “The difference is the solution and the time spent swimming. For bagels it's plain water and about 60 seconds, but for pretzels it's an extremely weak lye solution and about 1 second.”

Israeli soft pretzels are usually round – with a hole in the middle, of course – rather than shaped like a loose knot, making them look like a far less plump version of the bagels Americans are used to. They taste like soft pretzels, though, and are sold either plain or topped with salt, sesame seeds or zaatar, the green Middle Eastern spice known in English as hyssop.

If you walk out of a train station in Israel you will often find a man standing outside shouting: “Bageleh ham [KHAHM]! Bageleh ham!” (“Hot pretzels! Hot pretzels!”) – regardless of how long ago the doughy rings actually came out of the oven.