The Newbie's Guide to the Knish

Food History

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Those of you raised on the classic New York City knish may goggle astonished at people who have never encountered this comfort food extraordinaire. But there are plenty of us who come to the knish late, like one reader last week who asked, "Can you tell me exactly what a knish is?" She also asked for more history of this mysterious food.

I also had my first knish less than a year ago so I can relate, and so I decided to call on an expert: Laura Silver, author of Knish: In Search of the Jewish Soul Food.

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Laura Silver is an award-winning journalist who lives in Brooklyn and is considered the world’s leading expert on the knish. Her first book, Knish: In Search of the Jewish Soul Food has just been released, and we passed along our reader's questions to her.

What is a knish, exactly?

A knish is a pillow of dough, stuffed, most commonly, with onion-strewn mashed potatoes and, more often than not, with stories.

Wow: Dough stuffed with potatoes. Carb heaven! Where do they come from?

Yes, the knish is comfort food par excellence. They're linked to the history of New York City and before that to the small towns of Eastern Europe. The knish came to prominence in New York on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and in the boardwalks of Brooklyn around 1900. It came to this country with Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe who sold it from pushcarts and baskets.

Knishes are the food of memory, but don't worry if knishes don't figure into your formative experiences. The food is a conduit for conversation and new experiences — and it has a kindred pastry in every culture: empanadas, samosas, Jamaican patties — I like to call them knitting cousins.

Our reader asked if they're come in round or square shapes.

The knish can come in any shape, really, but the most known are round, usually baked, and square, generally fried.

What's inside a knish?

Round knishes can have sweet or savory fillings — potato, kasha (buckwheat groats), mushroom, spinach, or sweet cheese with fruit fillings whereas square are generally potato, through and through, the crispy exterior a result of frying.

Didn't a knish factory have a crisis last year? What happened?

In the fall of 2013, right before the historic confluence of the Chanukah and Thanksgiving holidays, the Gabilas' knish factory — home of the Coney Island, or square knish — now located on Long Island, was the site of fire that put its knish-making machinery out of commission for nearly half a half a year. It's back up and running, after national and international expressions of consternation from people of all walks of life and all ethnic backgrounds.

The knish is a survivor and its ever-evolving. Today, a guy in San Francisco is making them with ingredients like wasabi , curried beef and white chocolate.

Mrs. Stahl near her shop in Brighton Beach Brooklyn.
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Do you have a good recipe for knishes?

My book, Knish: In Search of the Jewish Soul Food, also contains the recipe from my favorite knishery, Mrs. Stahl's, as transmitted by the granddaughters of the real Mrs. Stahl.

When Mrs. Stahl was just getting started in knishes, in the 1930s, she sat on the beach with a basket of her homemade knishes, and, as not to arouse suspicion from the police, pretended to be a beachgoer preparing a picnic. People knew to approach her for knishes. That's how she built her business, from a basket to a stall to a full-fledged shop whose name still conjures warmth.

You can harness the legacy of Mrs. Stahl and knish makers everywhere, with persistence, love and commitment to the process.

Thanks so much Laura!

Read More from Laura Silver on the Knish

(Image credits: Elzbieta Sekowska/Shutterstock; Laura Silver; Photo courtesy of Toby Engelberg, via Laura Silver.)

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