The History of Bagels

Where did the humble bread with a hole in the middle migrate from? This question has been an ongoing debate amongst historians and bagel purists alike. So let’s start with the facts. Bagels have been a major breakfast staple in the U.S. for almost half a century. They’re also the only bread that’s boiled before baked. I was quite surprised to learn about the many etiologies of the word bagel – beygel in Yddish, bouc and boug from German meaning ring or bracelet, and begul, a German word meaning a round loaf of bread.

The most popular legend traces as far back as 1683 when a Vienesse baker wanted to commemorate the victory of Polish King Jan III Sobieski over the Turks. One version has it that the bagel was formed as a stirrup to represet the king’s passion for riding. The other claims that the liberated Austrians ran and clung on to the king’s stirrups as he rode by – not quite sure which one to believe, but they both sound plausible to me =]

King Jan III Sobieski

King Jan III Sobieski

Leo Rosten’s “The Joys of Yiddish,” dates back even further to 1610, in the “Community Regulations of Cracow,” where it is stated that “bagels would be given as a gift to any woman in childbirth” – Coincidentally, the Shanghai Mama’s were our first customers… or was this a coincidence??

It wasn’t long before bagels became a staple amongst the Jewish residents in Eastern Europe where they were regarded as boobliki in Russian, oazanki in Polish, and as mentioned earlier, beygel in Yiddish.

Despite the popularity of the bagel in Eastern Europe, it wasn’t until reaching American soil that bagels became widely popular, especially in Chicago and NYC. The making of cream cheese was also another big breakthrough for the bagel (mmmmm thinking of it now is making me salivate!). Even though the bagel had traversed the Atlantic and gained a wide following, the art of bagel-making was a union-inherited secret. In 1907, the International Bagel Bakers’ Union was founded, also known as Bagel Bakers Local 338, in NYC with the “regulations permitting only sons of members as apprentices.”

In 1927, the Polish baker Henry Lender left for New Haven, Conneticut and set up the first bagel factory outside of NYC. It was in New Haven where he started mass producing bagels to be sent to supermarkets, chains, etc. As a bagel purist, not sure whether to thank or frown upon the birth of the frozen, ‘grocery store’ bagel, but for those ‘roll with a hole’ lovers out there, it’s thanks to this bagel entrepreneur. Plus, I reckon if not for him bagels would’ve never stumbled upon sunny California =]


Bagel vs Donut

This made me smile today =)  (Thanks Jeremy!)

How are bagels made?

Lately, a lot of my friends have been asking me how bagels are made..after they’ve gotten over the fact that we can actually make them. It’s not rocket science, but it is a pretty laborious process that we are continuously trying to perfect.

Step 1

Make a starter – First we mix together yeast, flour and water to make a gooey dough which we set aside for a little while so the yeast can work its magic. After about half an hour, the dough will rise significantly and feel like a sponge.

Step 2

Make the dough – The actual dough we use requires more flour, yeast, salt, malt syrup, and other ingredients depending on the flavor we are making. We mix all of that in with the starter and kneed until our arms are about to fall off.

Step 3

Shape the dough – We divide the solid clump of dough into smaller sections. We then roll each ball of dough into sticks and attach the ends to form a bagel ring. There’s another way to shape the dough which we call the “poke-a-hole method”. You basically stick your thumb in the middle of the ball, rotate and smooth out the edges. We don’t use this method because the bagels usually come out wrinkly and oddly shaped, but we did get a few good laughs out of it 😀

Step 4

Let it rise – We let the bagels sit overnight in the fridge so the yeast can be fully activated. But it is important that the bagels are kept at a low temperature so they don’t rise too much.

Step 5

Boil the bagels – In the morning, the bagels become about 50% larger. We let them swim briefly in a boiling mixture of water, baking soda, and malt syrup which we then glaze with egg white to give it a nice shine. Toppings are added as necessary.

Step 6

Bake the bagels – The bagels are quickly injected into the oven which is preheated to 230 degrees Celcius. We cook them for about 15 minutes until they are crisp and brown on the outside. We let them cool off on a rack (sometimes not) before devouring a few for breakfast. We found that bagels are best consumed while warm with a thick layer of cream cheese or peanut butter slathered on…yummmm!

Total time spent: About 3 hours for a dozen bagels (excluding waiting time for yeast to rise)

What you get: Chewy and dense bagels with a hard crust…the way God meant them to be

Glamour to glory (a feat in itself)

I always thought there was glamour in a baker’s kitchen. The endless possibilities of fresh baked goodness, magical wonders of flour and yeast, homey and fragrant concoctions of cinnamon, raisins, maple, and chocolate drifting from the oven, and alas, praise for the yummy creations! That illusion was shorter lived than a one-hit wonder hitting the mainstream. Indulging myself in the art of bagel making provoked a sudden realization of the painstaking challenges that are hidden behind the most glamorous of facades. Just think Project Runway (in the kitchen!). More often than not, I would find myself covered in a gooey consistency of flour with too much water, and bagels packed with craters on the surface.  In hindsight, I don’t think I’ve ever experienced anything as messy, frustrating, tedious and demanding of an endeavor than baking bagels. But like a soldier in his first weeks of duty, it was just the beginning. Now, after all these months of baking literally night and day, and swimming in 50 lbs of flour on a delusional night, the once strenuous endeavor of bagel baking has turned into one of my most beloved and sacred pastimes. And not to forget, the fabulous taste and appearance of the bagel itself! It’s been a long, but well worth it journey indeed.

Save the bagels!

Wondering how to preserve the freshness of a bagel?!? Look no further, the bagel girls are here to help. Bagels stay freshest when you seal them in a plastic bag after cooling. You got a few options: 1) eat them ALL when they’re still fresh or 2) store them in a sealed zip-lock bag (should be cool before sealing) 3) throw them in the freezer for up to one month and when you want to satisfy that bagel itch, simply throw them in the oven and enjoy the oh soo baked goodness! But you want to make sure you slice the bagel before freezing, so you don’t have to wait those excruciating minutes for your bagel to defrost, AND to avoid any unsightly accidents!! Also, refrigerating bagels (or any other type of bread) is a no-no – they’ll go stale up to 6 times faster in the fridge.

How we got started…

So besides the fact that REAL bagels are lacking in Shanghai, another reason that we started mass producing these babies is thanks to Steven Levitt, the author of Freakonomics, who writes about the reasons behind some rather interesting (and random) human behaviors and phenomena. One of the issues he explores in his book is cheating. He cites the example of Paul Feldman, an economist and bagel maker, to illustrate the fact that people are in fact more honest than most would believe. Basically, Paul Feldman delivered bagels to offices and asked people to pay by leaving money in these wooden boxes. He maintained detailed records of how much people paid versus number of bagels eaten and found that his average return rate was an astonishing 90%. You can read a detailed excerpt here.

Christine came to me with the idea of doing something like this in Shanghai. My first reaction was that this would never fly – and let’s be honest here, China is not exactly known for being morally upstanding (corrupt government officials and the incidents at the Olympic games come to mind amongst other things).  But she pointed out that there is potential with white collar workers, and expats in particular, who are generally better educated and command a higher salary.  So if anything, they are the ones who would pay – or would they? So when I finally came on board, the reason is more than just to sell bagels. I can actually see this turning into an interesting social experiment* that could once and for all prove whether people are inherently honest (and whether culture matters).

*Note: We haven’t started this project because we are still working out the details.  But if your company is interested in having bagels delivered to your office once a week, please email us at and we will notify you when we launch it.

The bagels are ready!

So after months of painstaking changes to our bagel recipe, we are excited to announce that it is ready to be rolled out to the public!

Wait. But where are these bagels coming from you ask?

Well currently we are a home operation churning out a few dozen bagels at a time (somewhere in Jingan). We are suckers for homemade goods so we’ve become quite adept at making these handrolled bagels.  We also like to source our ingredients from far and wide (yes imports are indeed better). Our flour comes from HK; we get our cream cheese from Australia; our yeast is from Germany; the raisins are from sunny California; and the salt we use is kosher. They say in NY that it is the water that makes the bagels so good.  Well I’d say that Shanghai NongFu spring water would have that beat (tap water unfortunately gives the bagels a funny chlorine smell/taste).

How much are you charging for these bagels if you are buying all these imported ingredients?

Our bagels range from 6 to 8 rmb. Cream cheese is extra at 5 rmb per generous serving. Not bad I’d say! The New Yorker in me demands the highest quality so we don’t skimp on the ingredients. But thankfully the Shanghainess in me also loves to bargain aggressively so we are able to keep costs under control.

Uh can I have some bagels already?

Unfortunately our capacity is quite limited at this point. We currently only deliver in the Jingan and Xujiahui areas 3 days a week. If you want to place an order, just send a request to and we will do our best to meet your demand.