If you’ve spent time contemplating the cases and shelves at Bread Lounge in downtown Los Angeles — or the bread-laden carts outside the gates of Jerusalem’s Old City — you’ll recognize a Jerusalem bagel even if you’re not quite sure what it is.
Scattered with sesame seeds and oblong in shape, it looks like a traditional bagel after a game of tug-of-war. The bread is bouncy in a way that American bagels are definitely not, and fragrant and crusty with seeds, and it is most definitely not a bagel. At Jerusalem carts, you’ll get one wrapped in paper with a packet of the spice blend za’atar for dipping. At Bread Lounge, you can order a plate of labneh studded with tomatoes, olives, olive oil and za’atar with your Jerusalem bagels. Or you can just ask for some of the house-made za’atar when you pick out your bagels and they’ll give it to you on the side.
Ran Zimon remembers getting the snacks in Jerusalem when he was a kid — he grew up outside Tel Aviv — but he didn’t think to put them on the menu at Bread Lounge when it opened in May of 2012. He’d never even made them before, even when he was baking in Israel. It took an early visitor to the bakery who got to talking to Zimon about the Turkish bread simit, a popular street food that’s very similar to the Israeli version, for Zimon to remember the bagels of his childhood. Shortly after, he put Jerusalem bagels on his menu.
Zimon makes the classic sesame-topped version, as well as plain, onion and seeded. He also makes round ones because people like them, they’re easy to make sandwiches with and, well, why not — especially as Bread Lounge does not make actual bagels.
Jerusalem bagels aren’t boiled, nor do they have much in common with actual bagels other than the name. Rather, they’re a simple yeasted bread that’s shaped, topped with seeds and baked. Ta-da.
Zimon remembers childhood trips to the desert and crushing fresh hyssop in his hands — though za’atar is usually made with oregano in this country — the heady stuff perfuming the dry air. He’s in the process of bottling his za’atar and selling it, so if you get your bagels to go, you can take it all home for your own dipping party.