BROOKLINE — A knish is one delightfully simple dish. Take dough, add filling, bake or fry, and you have the ultimate handheld comfort food, sold in many Jewish delicatessens. The little rounds enjoyed a heyday in the mid-20th century, when many urban neighborhoods with Jewish immigrants had knish shops.
Nowadays knishes aren’t something passerbys grab every day from their local shop, but there isn’t a bar or bat mitzvah party that doesn’t include them. And if you find yourself in Brookline’s Coolidge Corner, you’ll have three knish-serving delis within minutes of each other. All have distinct approaches that offer a combination of nostalgia and innovation.
A knish is essentially a filled dough pocket — not quite an empanada or a dumpling — with beef or potato inside. But other fillings also work. According to Laura Silver, author of “Knish: In Search of Jewish Soul Food,” “In its most pure form, it’s a pillow of dough stuffed with mashed potatoes and seasoned with onions,” she says. “But there are many varieties. They can be baked or fried, sweet or savory.”
Knishes, she says, first appeared in 17th-century Poland and arrived in this country in the 1800s, courtesy of the Jewish immigrants. New York and Boston remain major centers for American knish-craft.
The 88-year-old Rubin’s Kosher Restaurant in Brookline serves knishes that haven’t changed much since it first opened. Allen Gellerman, who has owned the spot for 18 years, spent months in the kitchen with the original owners learning their techniques. Potato, spinach, beef, and sweet potato (two for $5.99) are always available, with specials appearing from time to time. “I like to keep everything traditional,” says Gellerman.“That’s what’s special about Rubin’s. We stick to original recipes, don’t use preservatives, and everything’s made fresh in-house.”
In addition to customers from the Jewish community in Brookline, Gellerman says that since his restaurant was featured on the Travel Channel, more non-Jewish clientele are coming in to sample knishes. His clientele age used to be “around 75,” he says, but lately he’s been seeing more 35- to 40-year-olds. “People come in and tell stories about their parents eating here,” he says. “They’ll tell me, ‘This is exactly what my mother or my grandmother would serve me.’ They feel like they’re back at home. It’s a great feeling.”
Zaftigs Delicatessen, a few blocks away, is what owner Bob Shuman describes as a “Jewish diner.” This menu takes a slightly more modern approach to knishes. The deli, established 18 years ago, offers potato, broccoli-cheddar, and a Reuben knish, with corned beef and sauerkraut (see Cover Story). Flavorful meat knishes are filled with seasoned leftover brisket and pastrami (all two for $6). He sells 500 knishes a week and says he’s planning to install a heated case to sell hot knishes to customers looking for a snack or waiting to be seated.
Shuman’s creations come from a combination of his mother and grandmother’s recipes, and his own experiences in New York, where he and a chef “just ate and shopped at every place we could find.” Shuman admits that the contemporary approach to Jewish food was met with skepticism when Zaftigs opened, but reaching a wide audience has always been his goal. “Jewish cookery is like Italian cookery, where nobody cooks as well as your grandmother or your aunt. Our intent, however, has always been to appeal to the masses.”
While Zaftigs can be unique, Michael’s Deli is really pushing the knish envelope. Owner Steven Peljovich acquired Michael’s in 2012 and began introducing three weekly “Krazy Knishes.” While maintaining the staple flavors of potato, spinach, beef, and a diabolically good pastrami knish, Peljovich relies on customer suggestions — especially on Twitter @Michaels_Deli — for unorthodox ideas. Barbecued chicken, three-bean nacho, and roast beef with kimchi were recently available (all $3.75 each).
“I’ve been in the restaurant industry for more than 20 years,” Peljovich says. “It can get boring if you’re doing the same thing every day. This started as a way to let my staff and guests get creative and have fun with food.”
Of course, when you’ve served unusual takes on knishes (including Fluffernutter, Twix, and falafel, which Peljovich said was his only complete failure), there will be naysayers. But the owner isn’t phased. “With the Krazy Knishes, people say, ‘Wait a minute, you can’t call that a knish,’ ” he says. “I tell them, I don’t know what else to call it, so I’m calling it a knish. A knish is yummy food wrapped in dough and portable for travel. That’s what this is.”
The immigrants who brought the knish to America probably didn’t foresee their descendants filling the dough with kimchi beef or Twix. But, as Silver, the author, says, “What’s most important are the intentions. If you’re intending to make a knish, that’s what matters.
“It must taste good, and be filled with love and stories. If it doesn’t taste good, it doesn’t count.”
RUBIN’S KOSHER RESTAURANT
500 Harvard St., Coolidge Corner, Brookline, 617-731-8787,
335 Harvard St., Coolidge Corner, Brookline, (second location in Natick), 617-975-0075 www.zaftigs.com
256 Harvard St., Coolidge Corner, Brookline, 617-738-3354,
Jon Mael can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.