Certain foods are undeniably, quintessentially New York. Of course you have the bagels and the pizza and the greasy Chinese takeout—three of the basic city food groups—but standing side by side with these popular Gotham grubs is the oft forgotten knish. A staple of the Lower East Side since the late 1800’s, the knish is sold in delis, from street carts and at dedicated storefronts throughout the city. But the undisputed king of the knish is the century-old Yonah Schimmel’s.
A knish is basically a ball of mashed potatoes surrounded by a thin layer of dough. It can be baked or fried with different vegetables mixed into the filling. Knishes gained popularity with immigrants in New York as a cheap yet filling way to make two fairly basic, inexpensive foods into something more exciting. And nothing has changed since. To this day, Yonah Schimmel’s uses the same recipe that the Romanian Rabbi Schimmel served from his street cart in 1890. Oh, and it’s vegan.
Handmade and always baked (in the original brick ovens), these knishes define comfort food. They are the perfect way to start a day, a warm snack to heat your hands in the winter, or a satisfying treat to sneak into the movies (Sunshine theater is just two doors down). They also come in an amazing assortment of vegan flavors, including traditional potato, kasha, spinach, mushroom, vegetable, cabbage, sweet potato and broccoli. And at $3.50 a pop, you’re not breaking the bank to get a meal.
The spinach knish is my personal favorite. It has just a little more variety than the original to fill out the flavor. It’s large and hearty and everything that a knish should be. The dough is thin and does not overwhelm the potatoes (with that much potato, that would be difficult). And, though a knish is by definition a heavy meal, the fact that it’s baked helps lighten up the load.
On the sweeter side of the knish spectrum dwells the sweet potato knish. Filled with an orange mash and sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar, this knish is more like a dessert. Most people wouldn’t think to describe a knish as decadent, but this one redefines the knish. When I order the sweet potato knish, I honestly have trouble finishing it; but it’s so good that I always do.
Yonah Schimmel’s is more than an eatery, it’s an LES institution and you can see it in the customers streaming in and out. One man reminisced about eating these same knishes as a boy 55 years ago. A couple came in to buy a dozen to freeze and send to their son in California who had claimed that these knishes were what he missed most about New York. The tin ceiling and the dumbwaiter are the same as when the store opened, as is the atmosphere. There aren’t a lot of places like this left in the city, and Yonah Schimmel’s has lasted this long for a good reason. If only for the experience alone, you should visit this knishery and grab a knish to go. Once you’ve had one, you’ll understand what has kept people coming back for the last 100 years.knish, new york