Kosher Without Borders
Jews are commanded to keep kosher, most rabbis would say, because eating the same foods keeps people together, and separates them from people who eat other kinds of food. But what happens, Noshing is Sacred wants to know, when even the most observant Jews can eat almost anything that they want, including the foods of other cultures? What happens when Chinese and Indian food become “Jewish” food as well?
There is nothing new, of course, in the attraction of Jews — New York Jews in particular — to Italian, Asian and other cuisines. To some degree, the Chinese restaurant actually replaced the delicatessen as the Sunday night hangout for mid and late 20th-century suburban American Jews. But this week’s annual trade show for the kosher food industry, Kosherfest, was notable for the hundreds of new “ethnic” products that are now available to kosher consumers.
From Mikee’s shiitake teriyaki sauce (voted this year’s “Best New Product”) to Cachamai’s Argentinian herbal tea, to Arpis’ Rumanian corn-flour pasta to Bute Island Foods’ Scottish cheese, the opportunities for observant Jews to cook and eat the foods of other countries are widening all the time. It thus seemed quite appropriate that the convention was organized for the first time in conjunction with Expo Comida Latina and All Asia Food, along with other food industry groups under the umbrella Cultural Food New York. Many kosher-certified products were actually displayed in the other pavilions, including those manufactured by Calavo Growers, Sun Hing Foods and Tumaros Gourmet Tortillas.
More than 100,000 products now carry one of the 900 kosher symbols used throughout the world. Menachem Lubinsky, who founded Kosherfest 19 years ago, said that the kosher market nowadays is driven by an increasingly younger and more affluent consumer, whose basic mantra is “If it can be made kosher, I’ll eat it.”
Lubinsky said that Kosherfest gives a lot of smaller companies a “quick ticket” into the New York market, where they have a shot at finding a distributor and making connections to stores and restaurateurs.
Some are brought by the London Beth Din, which identified Ming Foods, based in Kent, and convinced them to get their Chinese pancakes certified as kosher so they could be marketed in the United States. “When Kosherfest started, we wondered what would be the next big company to get their products kosher certified,” Lubinsky recalled. “Now that almost every icon company is kosher, we wonder what will be the next little ethnic company to get certified.”
Much of the ethnic food being marketed in this country comes from Israel (kosher food industry insiders call this the “I-factor”); food exports from Israel to the United States have risen to $100 million a year, up from $20 million just a decade ago. While at one point the Israelis “dreamed about what peace would mean in terms of enabling them to market their products all over the Middle East, now they are focusing on marketing to the United States,” Lubinsky said.
Israeli food exports are not limited to Middle Eastern food. Yonathan Gershon, who was born in Bombay and made aliyah at the age of 12, now owns a company in Beersheva that is exporting lemon chutney, tandoori paste, biryani rice mix and other Indian spices to this country. For those who prefer their food pre-made, other companies are marketing kosher frozen saag paneer and chicken tikka masala.
As a result of the continuing globalization of the overall American cuisine, it’s not just gefilte fish, borscht and matzah any more in the supermarket kosher aisle. Joe Plueger, a major supermarket buyer from the Midwest, pointed out that observant Jews are watching the Food Network and looking for kosher ingredients to prepare gazpacho or chicken.
But Brian Randall, who was one of the chief architects of Cultural Food, told me those who are looking for kosher symbols on their products include not just observant Jews, but Kabbalists, Seventh Day Adventists and Muslims. He said that kosher food manufacturers are thus adapting their products to a “multicultural palate,” but also looking to satisfy a broad range of consumers who want food that is vegetarian, organic, portion-controlled, lactose-free and so on. This has led to a demand for what he calls “non-endemic” Jewish products, from Tofutti to sushi, pomegranate juice to caviar.
Adam Kaufman, vice president of sales for Mikee (pronounced “Mikey,” after his brother, Michael, who also works for the company) said that Jews are traditionally “supposed to think about God when they eat kosher food. It was supposed to separate them spiritually from other peoples. But now Jews don’t want to feel left out just because they’re eating kosher.”
THAI SWEET-POTATO PEANUT-BUTTER SOUP
1/4 cup olive oil
2 stalks lemongrass, tough ends removed
2-inch piece of ginger, peeled
1 large onion, cut in large chunks
3 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons curry powder
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 large butternut squash, or 3 large sweet potatoes, or 3 large carrots, peeled and cut in chunks
8 cups water
One 15-ounce can of coconut milk
Salt to taste
1/2 cup peanut butter
Ground pepper to taste
In a wide heavy pot, heat the oil over high heat.
In a food processor, finely grind the lemongrass and ginger. Add the onion and pulse until coarsely ground.
Add the mixture to the pot, reduce the heat to medium, and fry until brown. Add the sugar and saute 1-2 more minutes, until caramelized. Add the curry, cinnamon and turmeric and saute just a few more seconds. Add the sweet potatoes, water, coconut milk and salt and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium and cook, covered, 30 minutes.
Add the peanut butter and pepper and cook, whisking, 2-3 more minutes.
Puree the mixture with an immersion blender.
Adjust consistency and seasonings.
Serve hot or chilled.
Recipe courtesy of Levana Kirschenbaum, co-owner of Levana Restaurant on the Upper West Side.