What’s kosher? (Part 2, with beef and eggplant ragout)

Kosher meat in a supermarket.

Kosher meat in a supermarket.

The basics of kashrut, the Jewish dietary laws, were in my column last week (along with a delicious easy recipe for blintz souffle). This is the second part of my introduction to keeping kosher.

Some people “keep kosher” because they truly believe it was commanded by God. Others do it so that members of their family–usually more religious parents or, increasingly, newly religious children–will eat in their homes. Some like the reminder, every time they eat, that they are part of a people with a history going back more than five millennia. Some feel the practice helps elevate the act of eating into something meaningful, even holy.

The vast majority of Jews do not “keep kosher” but some avoid certain inherently unkosher foods such as pork. If you invite someone Jewish to a meal, it’s a good idea to ask if there’s anything they do not eat. (Actually, considering how common food allergies have become, that’s a good question to ask when inviting anyone!)

Hosting kosher- or halal-keeping guests

Strictly orthodox Jews will not eat any food that is not certified kosher and prepared in a kosher kitchen, even if all the ingredients are kosher. Many who are less strict (like me) will eat in restaurants or in non-kosher homes, as long as the food itself is kosher.

If you want to invite a kosher-keeping Jew or a halal-keeping Muslim to eat with you, you’ll probably want to prepare a meal that revolves around fish and vegetables, or find a restaurant where there are vegetarian options or a lot of fish (but not shellfish, a category of food that’s not allowed).

If your recipe calls for chicken or beef stock and you want to use it for a meatless meal, substitute vegetable stock.

For Muslim guests, be sure to avoid using wine or liqueur in cooking and also make sure that there’s no alcohol in any of your ingredients, such as red wine or balsamic vinegar.

A wide variety of symbols signify a product is kosher. The product at bottom right also has a Halal designation for Muslims.

A wide variety of symbols signify a product is kosher. The product at bottom center also has a Halal designation for Muslims.

Kosher certification

Be careful about using prepared foods in cans, jars or boxes.

Kashrut-observant Jews rely on a complicated system in which religious authorities supervise the production of food products and certify that they are kosher. The manufacturers indicate this status with a “hechsher.” But it’s not that hard to find food with a hechsher.

Sue Fishkoff, in her book Kosher Nation http://www.suefishkoff.com/main/kosher-nation/ says about one-third to one-half of the food for sale in the typical American supermarket is kosher. That means more than $200 billion of the country’s estimated $500 billion in annual food sales is of items that are certified kosher. Not bad for a religious group that makes up less than 2 percent of the U.S. population!

The most common hechsher is the one provided by the Union of Orthodox Rabbis: a “U” inside a circle,” commonly called the “O-U.” You probably have many cans and boxes in your cupboard with this symbol without realizing what it means.

Other common symbols include the “O-K” (a K inside a circle), and the “triangle K” (a K inside a triangle).

If there’s a “D” next to the symbol, it indicates the product contains dairy ingredients. A “DE” indicates it was made on equipment that is also used to make dairy foods. A “P” indicates it’s kosher for Passover, a holiday that provides an additional set of dietary demands.

A simple “K” on a product means the manufacturer believes it contains nothing unkosher–but the production has not been supervised by any Jewish organization. This is acceptable to some but not to others.

There are nearly 1,000 known kosher certification symbols from all over the world. You can find an illustrated list here. 

In areas with large Muslim populations, you may see some packaged foods with a “halal” certification.

For an interesting perspective on kosher certification, read this Huffington Post blog by Conservative Rabbi Jason Miller, founder of the Kosher Michigan certification organization.

Last week I shared a kosher dairy recipe, so this week I’m sharing a recipe for meat. This came from my friend Ruth Marcus. She called it “moussaka” but it doesn’t have the traditional béchamel sauce you find in Greek moussaka (because that is made with milk and it wouldn’t be kosher). So I’ve renamed it Beef and Eggplant Ragout. The eggplant disappears in the cooking so it’s a good dish for families with kids who hate veggies. And it freezes very well.

What’s kosher? (Part 1, with an easy recipe for blintzes)

A kosher food stand in Niagara Falls.

A kosher food stand in Niagara Falls.

I maintain a kosher kitchen, and I eat only kosher foods outside my own home. The restrictions of a kosher diet can be baffling to non-Jews, so I thought I’d explain something about them.

We’ll start with a joke that you might have to be Jewish to understand. If so, I apologize. God is giving Moses the Torah – the Way by which the Israelites should live their lives – and he tells him, “Don’t boil a kid in its mother’s milk.”

Moses ponders a bit and then says, “Oh, you mean we should cook meat dishes and milk dishes in separate pots and eat them from separate dishes with separate utensils.”

God says, “What I said was ‘Don’t boil a kid in its mother’s milk.’”

Moses scratches his head for a few minutes, then says, “Aha, you mean we have to wait six hours after eating meat before we eat milk!”

God says (a little testily), “What I said was ‘Don’t boil a kid in its mother’s milk.’”

Moses thinks some more and then says, “I’ve got it! You mean we have to set up elaborate inspection systems to make sure our prepared foods don’t include anything we shouldn’t eat.”

At which point God throws up his hands and says, “Moses, do whatever the heck you want!”

A complex system from simple rules

This just illustrates the complexities of a system that grew from relatively simple beginnings.

“Kosher” (pronounced KO-sher in Yiddish and English ka-SHARE in Hebrew) means “proper” or “fit” to eat, and the laws of kashrut (kash-ROOT) – keeping kosher –  as presented in the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible) are fairly simple. They fall into three broad categories:

Only certain creatures are permitted as food. Animals that chew their cud and have cloven hoofs are kosher. So cows, lambs, goats, deer are OK; pigs, horses and rabbits are not. Birds of prey are not kosher. Sea creatures are kosher if they have fins and scales; shellfish, eel, catfish and shark are not kosher.

Do not eat blood. There are numerous Biblical injunctions against eating blood, an animal’s life force, starting with Genesis 9:4. From these prohibitions the Jews developed a system of kosher butchering that involves severing an animal’s jugular vein with one cut and draining the blood immediately. Halal slaughter for Muslims is similar. Both kosher and halal butchers say a prayer for the animal before killing it. Animals killed any other way are not kosher – so no hunting, no roadkill.

To be kosher, meat must also be soaked in water and then salted to further draw out the blood. In the past, this was done at home, and many housewives had a grooved wooden “koshering board” where they would lay the salted meat to drain. Today, these steps are usually handled by the butcher.

Do not boil a kid in its mother’s milk. No one knows why this prohibition was so important that it appears in the Torah three times (Exodus 23:19 and 34:26 and Deuteronomy 14:21). Some speculate that cooking a baby goat in its mother’s milk was a common pagan practice at the time. Others think the prohibition was against cooking a kid in its mother’s fat, which is a similar Hebrew word. But “milk” is the accepted wording, and from this seemingly simple prohibition have evolved the regulations for strict separation of milk and meat and a waiting period (that varies from one hour to six hours) after eating meat before eating dairy.

Jews who keep kosher have separate pots, dishes and utensils for cooking and consuming milk dishes and meat dishes.

Chicken and other poultry are considered meat, even though a chicken does not give milk and eating one would not result in boiling it in its mother’s milk.

Lots of foods are “parve”

Foods other than milk or dairy foods – fish, fruit, vegetables, eggs, flour, sugar, oil – are “parve” (neutral) and can be eaten with either milk or with meat.

Muslim halal regulations regarding permissible animals, proper slaughter and the prohibition to eat blood are so similar to those of kashrut that Muslims will usually permit the use of kosher meat. Some Muslims also avoid shellfish, but they have no prohibition against mixing meat and dairy.

Here is an easy dairy recipe that’s a favorite at Jewish brunches. Paired with a tossed salad, it also makes a nice simple dinner. You can find frozen blintzes in most supermarkets in Jewish areas. I found these at Costco!

What food rules does your faith or ethnic culture impose? Do you have any questions about kashrut or kosher food?