Beijing Bagelian Dialectics: Julian Tavalin’s Loaves of Love
Wednesday, May 8, 2013 | By: Terence Hsieh (谢燕辉)
Two years ago, a straw poll on the street of what Beijing’s expatriates missed eating most would almost unanimously result in drool-inducing discussion (and wet eyes) of that oh-so-delectably ringed breadstuff that was notoriously missing from the cities cafes and bakeries.
No, not doughnuts.
Bagels have always been in notably low supply (and quality), here in the capital city. “As far as I know, the Xinjiang people make this bread with dimples that’s the closest thing in the East, to a bagel,” says Julian Tavalin, founder and partner of Tavalin Bagels, the small-time bakery that’s bringing tears to the eyes of every ex-Brooklyn hipster and New Yorker who’s been in Beijing longer than a few weeks.
Tavalin’s bagel bakery is tucked away in Dongdaqiao, slightly south of the little stand in Sanlitun (right outside the Yaxiu Clothing Market) where the bagels are carried to and sold from every morning.
Tavalin’s bagels have all the important qualities of a good bagel: “A good bagel should have a cauliflower look when you pull it apart,” Tavalin demonstrates, ripping apart one of his test bagels. “Shape, smell, texture and flavor,” he lists. “The gluten is what it gives it that texture,” he motions, then sticks his nose into it; his face sours up– “it’s got a beer smell. This must be the Russian wheat.” American flour is difficult to procure in China, and so Tavalin is scientifically experimenting with Russian, Chinese whole wheat and Uyghur flours to avoid shortages, when foodstuffs get held up at port.
He motions towards a bronzed beauty on the cooling rack in the far back: “In terms of size, 130 grams is the perfect size for a bagel.”
Tavalin sells bagels at his Sanlitun stand from 11 am to 8 pm on weekdays, and open till 9 pm on weekends. His bagels come in the all the tried-and-true varieties (sundried tomato, garlic, sea salt, onion, sesame seed, plain, cinnamon raisin) with all the necessary accoutrements: cream cheese flavors including plain, strawberry, rosemary garlic, lox, chive and sun-dried tomato; as well as smoked salmon, lettuce, onion and tomato to go with your lunchtime boiled-bread delight.
Tavalin began his tenure in China as an English teacher nearly seven years ago. Five years later, he left the language business. His bagel idea began as an idea over beers, one night.
“I’d been wanting to eat a bagel since I got here. We were going on about bagels. We blabbed about it and had more beers and finally went home at three in the morning. The next day, I swear to god it was six in the morning and I bolted up and was on the computer researching about it and I was on the computer for three days, researching, going crazy about bagels. I thought– this is it: our ticket to salvation.”
The bagels are important but to Tavalin, his greater business philosophy even more so. “We really just want to make a good bagel, with sustainable, local resources,” he says.
Tavalin’s staff is all locally-hired Chinese. Looking around the room, there aren’t any idle workers sitting around, smoking or dropping things into the bagel batter. They carry themselves with a genuine pride about the bagels they make.
The head baker, a young Chinese man who doesn’t look much older than his twenties comes over, offering bites of the latest test run. He slowly chews the small mouthful, rolling the dough around his mouth calculatingly. “This one could be better,” he says.
Tavalin smiles with pride. “You see, it’s more than just a bagel. It’s a community bagel.”
If you’d like to order bagels from Tavalin’s Bagels, you can access the online order form here.
For more information, visit the Tavalin’s Bagels website here.