Ka’ak, and the Case for the Ancient Arabic Origins of the Bagel

Pile of ka'ak, otherwise known as

[Photograph: Dan Perez]

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I ambled down the cobblestone steps to the Damascus Gate in the Old City of Jerusalem countless times as a child, offering the boy driving the ka’ak cart two shekels for a sesame ka’ak and some za’atar wrapped in newspaper scraps. If I wanted to treat myself, I bought the ka’ak from the oldest bakery in the city along with some falafel and hay-roasted eggs.

It never occurred to me as a child that the delicious, if commonplace, treat, sometimes called a “Jerusalem sesame bagel,” might have a rich history, nor did it occur to me later in life that the ring-shaped bread might have anything to do with other, similarly shaped breads. But an examination of ancient Arabic cookbooks suggests that ka’ak may in fact be the precursor of the bagel.

The possibility first presented itself when I came across a recipe for a kind of ka’ak in the 13th century Arabic cookbook Kitab al Wusla ila al Habib, one of the earliest cookbooks on record in the world, in which the dough is shaped, boiled, then baked. The chapter opens, “We begin with several kinds of simple bread, the accompaniment to every meal. First, ka’ak, which are of several varieties.” It ends by saying, “plain ka’ak are too well known to need describing,” implying not only that these were common breads, but also ones that had been made for so long and hence were so well known that they needn’t be explained. Indeed, ka’ak is referenced in the oldest Arabic cookbook on record, the 10th century Kitab al Tabikh, without much explanation, as a staple of the cuisine.

There were several unique iterations of ka’ak in Kitab al Wusla ila al Habib, and excited as I was for this glimpse into the past of my preferred childhood bread, I was startled to find the variation for the boiled then baked rings, since that process is identical to the one for making bagels.

It raised the question: Does the bagel really have Arab origins?

In her book The Bagel, Maria Balinska tracks the origin of the bagel to Bona Sforza, an Italian woman from Bari who arrived in the royal Polish city of Krakow in 1518 to become queen. It’s also in Krakow, according to Leo Rosten’s The Joys of Yiddish, that the first written mention of bagels was found in 1610 Jewish community ordinances. But bagel-like bread was not new to Poland. Food historian Maria Dembinska* traces the first written mention of a ring-shaped bread made of wheat flour that was boiled before baking—referred to as obwarzanek—to Polish royal family accounts from 1394.

*Dembińska Maria, and William Woys Weaver. Food and Drink in Medieval Poland: Rediscovering a Cuisine of the Past. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999.

So where could Arab influence fit in? Well, for that, we’ll have to go back to the Middle Ages.

Between the sixth and ninth century, Arabs secured control of the entire southern Mediterranean coastline. In 652 AD, an Arab fleet defeated the Byzantine navy off the coast of Alexandria and established bases for their incursions into the Italian mainland and Sicily. In 841 AD, the Arabs conquered Bari on the Adriatic coast and, from there, took control of the Alpine passes connecting Italy with the rest of Western Europe, ultimately creating an empire in southern Italy that lasted about 200 years.

Bari became the Arabs’ principal stronghold, a base from which they not only influenced regional cuisine, but also the cuisine of the areas all along their expansive trade routes. Unsurprisingly, the Puglia region, of which Bari is the capital and from where Queen Bona Sforz of Poland hailed, happens to be the Italian home to tarallo, a boiled then baked ring-shaped bread.

In addition to this clue to where the ring-shaped bread might have entered the Polish kitchen, it’s relevant to note that rye was historically the dominant grain/flour in eastern Europe. And yet, the Polish obwarzanek was made from wheat flour, a grain native to the Eastern Mediterranean, which archeological evidence indicates was probably first cultivated in the southern Levant.** From other records, we know Arabs were responsible for spreading wheat to areas they traded with or conquered during the expansion of their empire.***

** Colledge, Sue, and James Conolly. The Origins and Spread of Domestic Plants in Southwest Asia and Europe. Left Coast Press, 2007.

*** Heine, Peter, and Peter Lewis. The Culinary Crescent: A History of Middle Eastern Cuisine. Gingko Library, 2018.

Overhead view of a bagel made from an adaptation of an ancient ka'ak recipe

A bagel made from an adapted ancient recipe for ka’ak.

There are other breads that are both similarly shaped and bear the trace of Arab influence. Girde naan, a bread which looks identical to the present-day bagel that’s still baked by the Muslim Uigurs of northwestern China, is another possible descendant of ka’ak, given that Islam flourished in China during the Middle Ages, when Arab maritime traders had a monopoly on the spice trade.

And simit, the Turkish “sesame bagel,” has a similar story. In the 15th century, the Ottoman Turks were the dominant power across Southeastern Europe, Western Asia, and North Africa. During that time, their court cuisine relied on Kitab al-Tabikh, which, after being translated by Muhammed bin Mahmud Şirvani, the court physician of Sultan Murad II, and embellished with a few recipes of his own, formed the core of the first Ottoman cookbook.****

The common thread between these similarly shaped breads, of course, is their proximity to spheres of Arab influence, whether they were trade routes or areas conquered by Islamic empires. In essence, obwarzanek, tarallo, girde naan, simit, and bagels are examples of culinary fusion, which is as old as cuisine itself. Centuries of conquest, migration, and trade have allowed culinary traditions to meld and evolve, both naturally and by force.

**** Albala, Ken, Freedman, Paul, Chaplin, Joyce E. Food in Time and Place.

You can even see this in ka’ak. While that ancient recipe calls for boiling then baking the dough, the most popular ka’ak across the Middle East today isn’t boiled before baking; ancient ka’ak recipes call for kneading seeds and flavorings into the dough itself, while present-day ka’ak al Quds uses a sugar water solution to attach the sesame seeds that are the most commonplace seasoning.

While I think it’s likely that the bagel is a descendant of ka’ak, the most relevant insight of the journey of this ring-shaped bread through history is that it isn’t uncommon for people to adopt the foods of those they interact with and to evolve those foods in unique ways. While ka’ak uses sugar water to ensure sesame seeds adhere to its exterior, bagels use the latent moisture and heat from boiling or an egg wash to add a wide variety of textures and flavors to their crusts, whereas simit opts for the grape syrup known as pekmez to ensure that sesame seeds (or poppy, or flax) stick. The processes are similar, yet different, used to the same ends but producing vastly different flavors and textures, and these few examples don’t even cover the many different ways in which each of these breads have been enjoyed for centuries. Innovation and tradition need not be mutually exclusive.

As we cook from other cultures, as we adapt dishes to suit different palates, and as we celebrate culinary diffusion, it is our responsibility to do the research and to highlight the origins of dishes in order to preserve their history with integrity. So before we rename ka’ak al Quds (literally, “ka’ak of Jerusalem”) “Jerusalem sesame bagels” in an effort to mainstream them, it might serve us better to learn of and honor the inspiration behind the bagel to begin with.

Does recognizing this origin detract from the bagel’s celebrated position in American Jewish cuisine or its own unique history? Not at all! The bagel may be steeped in Arab influences, and it may in fact have a richer history than is commonly known or understood, but the bagel and its ancient precursors share a history that simply confirms the importance of cross-cultural interaction, immigration, acceptance, and respect. So the next time you take a look at a bagel’s tight crumb and the scattering of whatever its seasoned with across its burnished surface, what you’ll see is the product of the intertwined histories of cultures and religions, one distinctive branch in the evolution of an ancient bread.

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