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As synonymous with the city of New York as the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty, the bagel – that key representative of the joys of Jewish American cuisine – is a stalwart of the American diet. It ticks all the boxes: it’s refreshingly indiscriminate – there’s no stigma around eating one on the subway, say, and its comparatively low-calorie count (this is no dollar slice, people) makes for a happily malleable breakfast or mid-afternoon snack. The bagel is among the most compliant of baked goods, receptive as it is to all manner of variations: whether scattered with sesame seeds or sultanas, and made from white, wholewheat or cinnamon-dusted dough. Not to mention the obvious practical advantages of storing, transporting or displaying a foodstuff which, so conveniently, has a hole through its centre.
There is a reason that the bagel has become so indelibly and inextricably interwoven with New York City culture, and the key is in the water. American bagels, crucially, are boiled before baking, giving them the slightly crunchy, golden brown exterior which preserves the chewy, doughy centre. And in Manhattan and its surrounding boroughs, where the water supply is piped from upstate and therefore super low in both calcium and magnesium, the chemical reactions which occur during boiling and baking create the crunchy-on-the-outside and soft-on-the-inside effect better than anywhere else.