The keeper of the knish

Delish knish! Adelman’s Deli owner owner Mahammed Salem holds out a tray of fresh knishes.
Photo by Steve Solomonson

A good knish is hard to find — unless you’re at Adelman’s Kosher Deli in Midwood.

Mohamed Salem keeps the fading tradition alive at the delicatessen — whose owners were Jewish, then Italian, and now Muslim — and the knishes have only gotten better over the years.

“The first knish I ever had was at Adelman’s,” said Salem, who started working at the kosher deli more than 20 years ago, long before buying it, because it was one of the only places in the neighborhood where he could eat as a halal-keeping Muslim. “And I still love to eat them.”

It’s true that knishes can be found elsewhere in the borough — on the hot plates of street vendors and in the windows of many Eastern-European groceries in Brighton Beach, for example — but Salem’s delicious $3 knishes, lovingly stuffed with mashed potato, onions, cheese and a variety of other fillings, are a puff above the rest.

“Knishes can either be done really well, or really poorly,” said David Sax, who ate nearly 250 delis worldwide while he was researching “Save the Deli: In Search of Perfect Pastrami, Crusty Rye, and the Heart of Jewish Delicatessen,” a book he wrote in 2009. “Many places you take two bites of a knish and you have to drown it in mustard. But Adelman’s knishes are works of craftsmanship; they’re my favorite knishes in Brooklyn.”

Knisheries were as once popular as bagel and pizza joints in the borough — even sparking wars throughout the city at times — but the heavy fried-or-baked snack’s popularity has since plunged, along with the number of delis; of New York’s 1,500 delicatessens that were alive and thriving in 1930, only two dozen remain, according to Sax.

Nonetheless, nowhere in the country — or world — does the knish elicit such nostalgia as New York.

“There’s a strong emotional attachment to knishes in New York that you don’t have elsewhere,” said Sax.

Enter Salem, who took over the decades-old Adelman’s in 2006 and made it his mission to be the custodian of the knish amidst a kosher cuisine climate still devastated by the loss of Mrs. Stahls — a Brighton Beach staple that was considered the city’s premier knishery when it closed in 2005, after 70 years in business.

Salem rose to the challenge: he took a classic Adelman’s recipe — and made it his own.

He serves up eight different kinds of knish every day, including spinach, kasha, mushroom, potato, broccoli, vegetable, meat, and even sweet potato — an unlikely knish that Salem put on the menu when he took over.

Given the knish’s New York ties, it’s fitting then that it lives on at Adelman’s, a place that has been passed from one immigrant group to the next throughout its history: the deli was opened by Jewish owners in Borough Park 70 years ago, before it was bought after it moved to Kings Highway in 1986, by Anthony Papeo, an Italian-American, who then sold it to Salem in 2006.

Salem is happy to be one of the city’s foremost knish-bearers.

“We have a good relationship with the community,” he said, noting the deli’s mostly Jewish clientele. “There is no problem between Jewish people and Muslims. We all came from the same neighborhood, you know?”

Adelman’s Kosher Deli [1906 Kings Hwy. between 9th Street and Ocean Avenue in Midwood, (718) 336-4915].

Reach reporter Eli Rosenberg at erosenberg@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260-2531. And follow him at twitter.com/emrosenberg.

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