Thirty years have passed since Meg Ryan made cinematic history with THAT unforgettable climatic scene in When Harry Met Sally. While she orgasmically made her point, there’s certainly no fakery involved in pastrami sandwiches or bagels when hunting down Jewish food in the Lower East Side (LES) in New York City. Afterall, hundreds of years of civilisation have gone into the creation and enjoyment of Jewish food. There are few things as comforting as a matzo ball soup as falling snow silences the city. Or as iconic as dining at Katz’s Delicatessen to have what she’s having.
Given a large proportion of the Jewish community who immigrated from Poland to NYC ended up in the LES, this gritty neighbourhood houses the largest Jewish population outside of Israel. The first recorded Jewish settler arrived in the mid-1600s, with the greatest influx in the late 1880s bringing with them their traditions, synagogues and Jewish food in the Lower East Side.
Located between the Bowery, East River, Houston Street and Chinatown’s Canal Street, tenement buildings are as synonymous as Jewish food in the Lower East Side. Where the crowded working class once spilled out onto the filthy sidewalks, hipsters have now claimed it their own with funky bars, restaurants, galleries and shops. Once home to Lou Reed and rumour has it Lady Gaga has digs in the LES, Bill Clinton and the late Anthony Bourdain also got their pastrami fix from Katz’s.
On arrival to Katz’s, you’ll be handed a yellow ticket and whatever you don’t lose it as it will cost you $50 if you don’t return it when you leave. Work out what you want to order before you get to the counter, or you’ll be yelled at.
You’ve probably gathered by now that Katz’s Pastrami Hot Sandwich is legendary. It’s cooked for so long and is so tender and juicy that it would fall apart using a meat carver and must be hand-carved to order. It’s best ordered with matzo ball soup, which are bready dumplings served in a homemade chicken broth; chicken soup for the Jewish soul. Many also order sides (knish) of potato, broccoli, spinach or the noodle dish, kasha. The serves are obscenely large so pace yourself and be like a New Yorker and take away the leftovers to enjoy later.
Other kosher favourites include chopped liver (“What am I, chopped liver?”) and the Corned Beef Hot Sandwich, where the beef is dry cured for a month. Add swiss cheese and sauerkraut and turn it into a Rueben Hot Sandwich and a side of pastrami if you’re up to the challenge. There’s always a side of pickles to help cut through the grease.
Another nostalgic favourite in the LES is Russ & Daughters known for their smoked fish, caviar, baked goods and bagels. New Yorkers take their bagels very seriously and believe that no bagel ever tastes as good as it does in New York due to the water. Joel Russ immigrated from Poland in 1907 and made a name for himself selling herring out of a barrel on a pushcart. Now a fourth-generation family business, smoked salmon slicers work in an open kitchen at Russ & Daughters honouring an over-the-counter tradition.
I lined up for 45 minutes at Ess-a-Bagel in Midtown founded by an Austrian baking family who have been hand-rolling bagels for 40 years. I had no idea there were so many variations ranging from cinnamon raisin and nine grain with honey, and that’s just the bagels. The choice of cream cheeses included chocolate chip, sundried tomato and cheddar. If you’re in a rush, you can avoid the line and buy the fillings and bagels separately and prepare them yourself.
Late one rainy night I stumbled upon 2nd Ave Deli and I learned two things. Seinfeld filmed an episode in this deli and New York is a city that DOES sleep as the deli was closing just as we arrived. They gave us our matzo ball soups to go and directed us to the tiny bar next door which was open until the unrespectable wee hours.
While delis used to be dime a dozen, especially in the LES, the ones that have survived have done so because of their loyal following and traditions. It’s difficult to imagine any place in Perth being in operation for so long, but there are kosher options that don’t require a gruelling 30-hour flight 12 time zones away.
Originally published in Issue 27 of Menu Magazine
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