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Spicing Tradition With Taste

JERUSALEM, Jun 19 2012 (IPS) - Kosher, in spoken English, might mean ‘proper’, ‘acceptable’, ‘legitimate’. Yet, sourced in the Bible, the Hebrew word incontrovertibly finds its way in Jewish cuisine. Food is kosher when suitable for consumption – that is, according to a set of religious dietary laws or kashrut.

Motti Shushan is a busy man. Upon entering a legendary establishment located in the centre of town, the kosher food supervisor hastily kisses his fingertips and brushes the ‘mezuzah’, a tiny piece of parchment with a blessing encased in a decorative capsule affixed to the doorpost.

Named ‘Kadosh’ – ‘Holy’ in Hebrew – the 45-year-old café, reputed for its cakes, serves dairy meals only. That is because the eatery is kosher. Sifting flour into a large bowl to ensure it doesn’t contain impurities, Shushan explains the most elemental principles of the most elemental activity – eating.

“The Ancient Testament commands us three times, ‘Thou shalt not boil the kid (young goat) into its mother’s milk’,” he states solemnly, quoting a verse from the Books of Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy. “The divine rules relate first to eating; second, to cooking; third, to selling.”

Shushan expounds the ‘food chain’ built in selling proscribed food. “For financial gratification, a Jew sells proscribed food to a non-Jew who re-sells it to a Jew who, unbeknownst to himself, transgresses the rule about eating.”

A less literary reading of the Bible is offered by Israel Kohl, a scholar from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “In Genesis Chapter One, the original vision of God is of a vegetarian world. Creatures eat only grass and vegetables.”

That was too much, reckons the Jewish studies professor. “At the End of Days that’ll usher in the Messiah’s Coming, such idealist diet might be imposed.” Following the Flood sent by God, boiled food is sanctioned, with universal restrictions: cruelty, eating blood, is prohibited.

The inspection of the dairy bistro over, Shushan crosses the street to ‘Noya’, which serves only meat dishes. In the gourmet restaurant’s kitchen, the kosher food supervisor watches over another kosher food supervisor as the latter blesses the bread.

“Why is it forbidden by the Almighty to eat impure animals – camels, rabbits, or owls?” Shushan asks rhetorically. “It isn’t good for the soul. A Jew should maintain a healthy mind in a healthy body if only to study the Holy Scriptures.”

So, what are the commandments of Kashrut?

Apart from the prohibition of mixtures of – and the imperative use of separate sinks and utensils for – dairy and meat foods, the consumption of pig is forbidden. “Unclean, infested with parasites, pigs wallow in their own muck,” Shushan murmurs in disgust. “Our sages teach us, pigs aren’t good for the soul, untouchable.”

Out of the dish, then, are carnivores, birds of prey and scavengers; so are animals without cloven hooves. Chewing the meat of an animal chewing the cud, however, is more than acceptable.

Insects, reptiles, amphibians, invertebrates, even seashells, are non-kosher, thus non-edible, creatures.

“In Leviticus Chapter 11, the Israelites – only the children of Israel – receive special rules,” – what one can, cannot, eat,” Kohl continues. “Initially, ‘Holy’ means ‘to be separated’. So, one should ‘separate’ kosher from non-kosher animals to become ‘holy’. ‘Holiness’ is about ‘separation’.”

Indeed, dietary rules are the great separator between peoples’ identities, behaviours and cultures. But food is also the great unifier, the necessity of everyone’s daily existence.

Then, there is the commandment to slaughter kosher mammals and fowls according to a precisely-defined process. “The slaughter must sever the jugular vein, carotid artery, oesophagus and trachea in a single continuous movement with a non-serrated, sharp knife,” Shushan says, mimicking the action with his forefinger across his own throat.

“The body must have neither been sick nor had any defect such as lung adhesions or fractured bones,” he cautions.

The blood is then removed through salting from the meat deemed suitable. Fruits and vegetables are cleansed. “I check figs for insect and worm infestation,” Shushan explains. “If the figs’ minority is healthy, the convention is, all figs are clean. You can’t just check every single fruit,” he protests.

Last but not least, the prohibition of consuming food cooked by a non-Jew. “A Jew must put the pot on the stove and light it; a non-Jew can then continue the cooking.” A tricky edict as both chef and cook are Muslim – but that doesn’t perturb them.

“Neither Jewish nor Muslim nor Christian – here, we’re family,” proclaims Mahmoud Mahmoud, the cook. Chef Genady Ghazzia has a saying, “Whoever swims the sea can swim the pool. Sure, kosher food’s a challenge but, with us Muslims, it’s similar: what’s permissible (‘Halal’) is permissible; what’s prohibited (‘Haram’) is prohibited.”

Once all conditions are met, the Rabbinate adorns restaurants with a kosher certificate.

Avi Rosenboym, a non-religious restaurateur, is considering upgrading his Argentinean-style cuisine. “The lure of profit – kosher food is in vogue; customers are more punctilious.”

Meanwhile at Noya, preparations for a special reception are in full steam. Fifty hosts have come to celebrate the ‘halaqah’, the traditional first haircut of the three-year old boy of the Master of Ceremony. “Our families are religious, traditionalist and secular,” explains MC Laurent Cohen. “So, to fulfil everyone, we eat here.”

“There’s room for everyone,” emphasises Yitzhak Danieli, one of the restaurant’s owners, “including for those who don’t necessarily respect kashrut.”

Jewish and non-Jewish philosophers have long tried to decipher the divine intentions that lie behind the stringent code of laws. Is eating spiced with a rational explanation? Must food be understood, digested so to speak?

“This is the Almighty’s commandment pure and simple,” says Shushan, matter-of-factly. “There’s neither logic nor reason.”

Still, in the age of organic food, how not succumb to the temptation of justifying kashrut rituals by extolling its health-giving virtues. The purpose of kosher food is the fulfilment of God’s will and wish, Kohl insists. “By putting limitations to mortal desires, for good food, sex, one proclaims that God is above all beings.”

Paramount obedience to God surely doesn’t mean diners can’t revel in earthly, yet kosher (as in ‘legitimate’), delights. The Cohens’ guests seemed to agree.


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