Josh Kaplan

Why can't London do proper Jewish delis?

Jewish fare in this country often tries to imitate our American cousins rather than forge its own way

August 03, 2022 15:30

Growing up in a largely secular, half-Israeli household, I never had much of a proper introduction to Ashkenazi food. It wasn’t until my mid-teens that I encountered a gefilte fish in the wild and I’ve still never dabbled in lokshen pudding, even as I get perilously close to my 30s.

I was put off by a lot of things: the lacklustre presentation, the ambivalent way it was served, the fact that the only people tucking in with gusto had a lack of hair or teeth (or both). Confident that I wasn’t missing out on any great treats, it wasn’t until I went to New York in my early 20s that I truly realised how wrong I was.

Walking into the famous Katz’s deli in Manhattan this summer, fighting past Midwestern tourists and visiting NW London families, I remembered feelings that only seem to come to me when I’m presented with such a bolshy, unapologetic shrine to Ashkenazi cuisine.

First, hunger - but secondly and, probably more importantly, a sense of pride. Pride in the fact that Ashkis, who are not from a part of the world known for its food, have managed to create such an enduring legacy of culinary achievement that even the goyest of goys queue up to snatch a little cardboard ticket and wait as long as 35 minutes for the honour of paying $35 for a non-kosher pastrami sandwich.

But of course, American delis are a world far bigger than Katz’s. Just in New York City alone there are at least two other world-beating Kosher delis in 2nd Ave Deli and Pastrami Queen, countless bagel shops from Ess-a-Bagel to H&H, and a world of pretenders all trying to mimic classics that Jews have made famous.

It’s easy to look at New York as holding a unique place in the world of Jewish cuisine, a proverbial Mecca for pastrami lovers and matzo ball soup fans but there’s absolutely no reason why London can’t also fight for the crown.

New York may have significantly more Jews, but Jews have been part of the foundation of London since before New York was even called New Amsterdam - and there’s no shortage of innovation and clout in our community.

But there may be a lack of imagination. Too often Jewish fare in this country is trying to imitate our glamorous American cousins. Two pastrami merchants that sadly closed last year, Monty’s and Harry Morgan’s, described themselves as “New York-style” delis, such is the allure and power of the Katz and co brand. And if you look at the rest of what London has to offer deli-wise, there are slim pickings.

To my mind, the only authentic claimant to good, honest, working class Jewish cuisine comes in the form of (non-kosher) Brick Lane institution Beigel Bake. With its iconic signage, beigels (never bagels) filled with salt beef brisket and a 24-hour queue, it’s the closest thing we have to a real New York Jewish experience. There are no whimsical illustrations of pickles or mock American signage and it has the confidence to be unashamedly Jewish and British. Beigels and platzels sit proudly next to Eccles cakes and Bakewell tarts, chopped herring shares a fridge with tuna and sweetcorn. It’s not trying to be New York. It’s not trying to be anything other than what it is.

British Jews, myself included, frequently bemoan London for being the nebbishe understudy to New York and its gritty, endemic Jewish identity. But if we had the courage to look inwards instead of westwards, London could become as much of a destination for an authentic deli experience as anywhere on the Upper West Side.

August 03, 2022 15:30

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