Palestinian Cookbook Author Reem Kassis Claims Bagels as Their Own


First they came for the matzah ball soup, and I did not speak out — because I don’t eat matzah ball soup.

Then they came for the challah, and I did not speak out — because I don’t eat challah.

Then they came for the bagels

Photo courtesy Peteravivangel, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

I was surprised to see that bagels might originate in Arab cuisine. I always associate them with Eastern European Jewish origins. So tell me about the history of the Arab equivalent of the bagel.

KASSIS: So like you, I actually also always assumed it originated with the Ashkenazi communities in Eastern Europe. And then I started doing the research for this book, the new one that just came out. And part of the research involved looking through ancient, mediaeval, Arabic cookbooks. And I’m flipping through one of them from the 13th century. And there in a chapter on bread, I see a section on ka’ak, which is a ring-shaped dough that Arabs used to make centuries ago. And I’m reading. And in there it says, you know, take these ring-shaped doughs, put them on a dowel, boil them in water and then bake them. And that, essentially, is what a bagel is today.

So once you start digging deeper, you realize the bagel can be traced back – and this is done by a lot of Jewish researchers. They trace it back to Poland in the 16th century. In Poland, however, they trace it back to their royal family to the 13th century. And then when you look who married into that royal family, it was a woman who came from Bari, Italy. And Bari, Italy, in the Middle Ages was the principal stronghold of the Islamic empire. And from there, the cuisine of Europe was influenced heavily by Arab traders and the conquest of that region.

So you start to see how the bagel, you know, in its original form traveled across the world. And then you also see very similar versions of it in China where the trade routes also went. And then you realized the thing connecting all those was their origin in those Arabic cookbooks, that fact of boiling a piece of dough before baking it. So I was fascinated just as much as you to learn that its origins go much further back than 16th century Eastern Europe.

GROSS: Do you remember eating bagels when you were growing up?

KASSIS: Not the bagels that we recognize today in the U.S. is bagels. What I grew up eating was something called ka’ak il qudss. Today here in the West, they refer to them as Jerusalem Sesame Bagels. But they’re substantially lighter and airier on the inside. They’re also much longer and oval-shaped and studded with sesame seeds. And those are probably one of the most prominent things I remember eating as a kid because everybody on the streets walked around with carts selling them. They would stand outside our schools, outside our homes and just, you know, yell off the top of their lungs, ka’ak, ka’ak for two shekels. Come buy it. And that was our snack.

This claim as to the origin of the bagel is contentious. According to the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food by Gil Marks (the late brother of former Israellycool contributor RealJStreets, who was widely regarded as an expert on the subject of Jewish food), bagels seem to have indeed originated with Jews.

Kaak is something else.

As mentioned in the above passage, “In the Levant, Arabs use kaak to denote large soft bread rings coated with sesame seeds akin to bagaleh.” Bagaleh themselves seem to have originated with Jaffa Arabs influenced by the European bagel.

Last year, Reem Kassis, this woman making the claim about the bagel, wrote a piece in the Washington Post entitled Here’s why Palestinians object to the term ‘Israeli food’: It erases us from history, in which she accuses us of cultural appropriation. So I find it hard to believe now she is innocently discussing the origin of the bagel; this seems like a concerted effort on her part to culturally appropriate it from us.

At the end of the day, all foods can be argued to have been influenced by others. In a sense, everyone somehow appropriates from someone else. And this doesn’t just apply to foods. Jews could argue that other monotheistic religions appropriated from Judaism, but what’s the point?

Yet we see time and again palestinian Arabs mounting this argument, in what seems like an attempt to deny us our history. They have, after all, already done it with our holy sites like the Temple Mount.

Hat tip: Mirabelle

Help Keep This Important Work Going

A law school graduate, David Lange transitioned from work in the oil and hi-tech industries into fulltime Israel advocacy. He is a respected commentator and Middle East analyst who has often been cited by the mainstream media