The first time I had a knish was a formidable moment. My mother went to a Jewish deli and brought a few home, in addition to a slew of other delights, but my tiny, grubby hands were only attracted to the knish. I was intrigued by its weight, its shape and its size. When she told me its name, though, I was all in. “What a fun word,” I thought! I loved the contrast and oddity of the sharp “kuh” sound that begins the word.
Culinarily, I think my initial assumption was that it was a dessert of sorts, but I could tell that its aroma was by no means sweet. Once I bit into the pastry and it gave way to rich, soft, perfectly seasoned potato, my mind was blown. I ate the rest of it with reckless abandon, flakes from the pastry on my shirt and chin, proudly noting my new favorite food.
Unfortunately, the potato knish has become my culinary white whale, if you will. For some odd reason — whether my tastes have shifted or sharpened, the knishes in my local area have decreased in quality, or some other amorphous pivot in the realm of knishes — I am incapable of finding a knish that brings me the same gastronomic pleasure as that initial knish. (Same goes for shortbread cookies, but that’s a conversation for another day).
For those who may (unfortunately) be unacquainted, though, let’s talk knishes.
Knishes in the realm of Jewish cuisine
Pronounced “kuh-nish,” this iconic potato pocket is a staple in the world of Jewish fare. From knishes (obviously) and matzoh ball soup to latkes, to hamantaschen and sufganiyot and rugelach, there is such a richness present in these Jewish foods: culturally, culinarily and historically. Beyond the deli, when it comes to Hanukkah spreads, foods like brisket, kugel, roasted chicken, cured fishes, charoset and so much more enter the lexicon. There is no shortage of spectacular food and the sheer breadth is both inspiring for its ingenuity, as well as its downright deliciousness. Furthermore, there is unquestionably always something for everyone, regardless of tastes, allergies or dietary preferences.
What do they taste like?
Essentially a hand pie similar to a handheld dumpling or pierogi, pelmeni or empanadas. The hearty, carb-laden combination of potato and dough is inherently enriching and warming, especially on a cold day or night. There is also usually some type of allium mixed in with the potato, often simply sautéed (or even sometimes caramelized) onion, as well as an occasional herb inclusion.
At its core, there’s a modesty to the knish. There’s a deep, hearty satisfaction when it comes to knishes, the richness of the smooth potato providing a smooth, filling note, almost like a hand-held mashed potato ensconced in buttery, flaky dough. It’s deeply savory and super filling, but also more of an appetizer or side than anything else. It also is sometimes served at brunch.
Spoon University‘s Beatrice Forman differentiates between kasha knishes (“which are round and baked with buckwheat”) versus square knishes (“Which are fried and found in your supermarket’s freezer aisle.)” Of course, if you live in the tri-state area or near any particularly great Jewish delis, you should be able to get your hands on some stellar knishes. Otherwise, you can always make them at home (or perhaps even get them shipped?)
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What is their history?
Alison Ladman writes in Our Coast Magazine that knishes “started as peasant food, later became a 19th century street cart convenience food and now are a staple of Jewish delis.” The knish’s journey is a remarkable one, especially seeing as how there are so any variations of the humble, iconic food: baked, fried, sweet, savory, vegetarian, meat-filled and so on and so forth.
The Jewish Chronicle notes that the knish originated in France — or Ukraine-by-way-of-France (the word knish actually means “a small person” in Ukranian) — where it then contained cabbage and meat. Due to political decrees, the surplus of potatoes soon grew exponentially and soon became the primary ingredient in knishes, as well as many other dishes and recipes. These sorts of hand pies proliferated throughout Europe, but once many Europeans immigrated to the United States (particularly New York City), the knish soon took hold on the region.
In OOLA, conversely, Amanda Huffman alleges that the knish originated in Poland.
Regardless, though, it’s generally agreed upon that the apex of the knish’s life was in the early 1900s in the Lower East Side of New York City.
This Chris Crowley Serious Eats story actually calls the knish “New York’s miss congeniality,” summing up the ethos of the knish beautifully: “a bomb of starchy fillings like nutty kasha groats or mashed potato with caramelized onions, wrapped in a thin sheet of dough and baked, the knish is claimed by Russians, Poles, and Ukrainians, and came to New York on the backs of Jewish immigrants.” He calls it a “quintessential New York food.”
As Laura Silver, author of “Knish; In Search of the Jewish Soul Food,” tells Serious Eats, “the knish was a conduit to a better life and a different social status.”
Beginning in the early 190s, “knisheries” began opening up throughout the Lower East Side, during the time that tons of people migrated to NYC in the hopes of a better life, oftentimes living in horribly overcrowded and unsafe tenement buildings and seeking out the “American dream,” sometimes via food. In this capacity, the knish became a lifesaver.
As more and more Jewish people moved to the Lower East Side, more and more knishes began to pop up. Crowley continues, describing the food in a mouth-watering way: “there’s a filling of onions cooked to golden caramel in chicken fat, then painted onto a belly-hugging potato canvas. That carby mass is then wrapped in thin, pliant dough and blistered in the oven.”
Soon enough, though, there was an unfortunate shift: Crowley notes that according to Silver, “as upwardly mobile Jews left poor neighborhoods like the LES, the knisheries that boosted economies a generation ago lost business and eventually closed.”
Unfortunately, for whatever reason, the knish was soon relegated to side status, never reaching the heights of success as the bagel.
The future of knishes?
The knish is by no means a “fashionable” food. Aesthetically, it doesn’t immediately jump off the page. Unfortunately, no one is flocking to knisheries or delis to take photos and upload them to Instagram. But its robust flavor and deep comfort should speak for itself.
The Jewish Chronicle also states that “true nostalgic Jewish food has never been elegant. It will never be nouvelle cuisine-style morsels tweezer-decorated with flowers and micro-herbs. It is generous food created by matriarchs — balabostas needing to fill hungry bellies with restricted resources.”
If that doesn’t encapsulate the essence and charm of a knish, though, then I don’t know what does.
In a 2014 discussion with NPR, Silver notes that — perhaps — “knishes are cool again,” connecting them to the “hipster lingo” and predicting a coming renaissance. Unfortunately, we have yet to see that come to fruition — but I still have hope.
We’ll see … maybe 2023 will be the year of the knish? And deservedly so.