You'll need a passport to find the nearest perfect bagel

Eating on the Edge: Montreal-style bagels, available in Vancouver, B.C., have better flavor and texture than anything you'll find around Seattle. They're also slimmer and more grounded, a metaphor for Canadian and American people, and relations.

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Siegel's Bagels in Vancouver, B.C.

Eating on the Edge: Montreal-style bagels, available in Vancouver, B.C., have better flavor and texture than anything you'll find around Seattle. They're also slimmer and more grounded, a metaphor for Canadian and American people, and relations.

The most simple food often starts the most contentious debates. You have heard them and probably had them, the kind usually tied to a regional culture and the integrity of some everyday food like hot dogs, pizza, coffee (technically a beverage not a food), or a hamburger.

When people argue about food they are often arguing about something else, their connection to home, or social politics. Or perhaps it is their way of loving something or someplace they have given up or left behind. People do not have words over fine food because people do not eat it every day. Whereas people are raised on food like Dick’s hamburgers, Geno’s cheesesteaks, or Superdawg hot dogs and for emotional reasons will grow up to accept no substitute no matter how good.

New Yorkers are unique in their attachment to the bagel, the orb of dough that is available in some form just about everywhere, although in most places bagels are just bread in ring form. New Yorkers will swear to their graves that the bagels they grew up with are the best and cannot be duplicated no matter how simple the recipe. (Bagels are leavened dough that is boiled and then baked.) Identical bagels made in Los Angeles are not as good, New Yorkers will swear, because the tap water used to make the dough is different.

Seattle is no bagel mecca, although the notion that you can’t get a decent bagel here is a bit overdone. The Bagel Oasis in Ravenna, Mikie’s Brooklyn Bagel & Deli in Redmond, even the Noah’s chain sell serviceable bagels. Not even in New York are you guaranteed a great bagel no matter where you eat it. Moreover, when you’re talking about boiled and baked dough, there are limitations to how much better one bagel can be than another.

If you are looking for the answer in Seattle, the most worthwhile advice I can give you is to look north to Vancouver, B.C., where you can find that rare treat, the Montreal-style bagel, at Siegel’s Bagels. There are two locations within a mile of each other at the southern end of the Burrard Street bridge and the Granville Island Public Market, Vancouver’s version of the Pike Place Market.

Eating a Montreal bagel is as much a revelation as one can have when eating a ring of dough. The inside is dense, chewy and faintly sweet, the outside noticeably crisp as if it had a crystalline shell. That comes from the small amount of honey added to the water the bagels are boiled in. By comparison, even some of the best New York bagels seem soft and bready. The Montreal bagel is noticeably smaller and skinnier and has a significantly larger hole. Intuition tells me this is what a bagel was truly meant to be. Call it an heirloom or heritage bagel.

Next to its slimmer cousin, the U.S. version looks like a metaphor for its people (the way we're viewed by the rest of the world, anyway) — soft and fat in the middle. It is super-sized to the point where the hole has all but disappeared. This is true even of bagels in New York. I recently had one there the size of a salad plate with only a ceremonial hole that no light could pass through.

The Montreal bagel is almost impossible to find in the United States. Even in the bagel capital of New York, there is but one place to find them and only because a transplanted Canadian happened to recently ditch law school to open the Mile End Deli in Brooklyn, where he sells Montreal-style bagels shipped from the famous St-Viateur Bagel bakery in Montreal. The Mile End charges $2.50 for one bagel. (In its defense, the shop has the bagels driven by car overnight from Montreal, seven hours away.) Siegel’s charges $1 Canadian (which these days is almost the same as $1 American).

Jewish immigrants brought bagels to North America. Like New York, Montreal was a nexus of Jewish immigration and still supports a large, traditional Jewish culture. Montreal bagels contain malt but no salt and are boiled in honey-sweetened water before being baked in a wood-fired oven, giving the skin a dappled look. A plain bagel looks darker and variegated compared to its American cousin. American bagels also contain malt but are salted. They are boiled in plain water and baked in conventional ovens. Bigger, puffier, and saltier, American bagels give easily to the bite and have little if any crunch to them.

The other hallmark of the American bagel is variety. Part of its Americanization was to multiply into overwhelming varieties: garlic, blueberry, cinnamon-raisin, whole wheat, pumpernickel, and on and on. Montreal bagels come in only three varieties: plain, poppy-seed, and sesame-seed. In general, it seems, the American bagel gave in to excess and was marketed into unrecognizable form, while the Canadian bagel stuck to basics, tradition, and the humble life it was intended for. The possible socio-political parables here are endless.

While the phrase "Canadian cuisine" is not going to set on fire the trend-metrics of any search engine, the variety and quality of Chinese and Japanese food alone is unique and worth the trip to a city like Vancouver, where the Chinese immigrants (mostly from Hong Kong) are affluent and the concentration of Japanese nationals is high. Or go just for the Montreal bagels. Buy a dozen of each variety; they freeze well.

Each loop of dough is a reminder that Canadians are maybe better versions of ourselves. They are a little kinder, more centered and grounded, less neurotic. They are like Midwesterners, except with cooler clothes.

If you go: Siegel’s Bagels, 1883 Cornwall Ave., Vancouver, B.C. (604-737-2180), open 24 hours; or 1698 Johnston St. (Granville Island Public Market), Vancouver, B.C. (604-685-5670), open daily 9 a.m.-7 p.m.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Hugo Kugiya

A former national correspondent for The Associated Press and Newsday, freelance writer Hugo Kugiya has written about the Northwest for the Puget Sound Business Journal, The Seattle Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times. His book, 58 Degrees North, about the sinking of the Arctic Rose fishing vessel, was a finalist for the 2006 Washington State Book Award. You can reach him at