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.

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