Food of the faithful: Keeping Kosher

Kosher foods are those that conform to the Jewish regulations of Kashrut. But what is Kosher and how does one actually keep it? 

A way of eating or a way of life?

Cultural diversity is now on sale in the shopping aisle of a supermarket near you. From Woolies to Coles and IGA, Australia’s main supermarkets are catering for various religious and cultural needs.

Thanks to Pauline Hanson’s anti-Halal campaigns of late, you’re likely to be aware of the presence of Islamic Halal foods at your local shopping place. You may also be conscience of the increase in vegetarian and vegan supermarket, and dining options to cater for those who don’t eat animal products. But what about Kosher food?

Australia’s practising Jews may only make up only one per cent of the nation’s population but that’s equates to 97,000 Jewish faithful (with specific dietary needs) who live across the country. And according to research conducted by Dr David Graham, almost 8,000 people living in the Upper and Lower North Shore of Sydney declared their faith as Jewish in the 2011 Census.

“Having Kosher food available in the area has also allowed the community to 'keep Kosher'."

IGA St Ives is but one Sydney supermarket catering to its local Jewish community, providing everything from Kosher meat and chicken prepared in Sydney and Melbourne to biscuits, sauces and nuts imported from Israel, Switzerland, South Africa and the United States.

“What’s great about having a Kosher section and bakery is that for our customers, this supermarket is a one-stop shop,” Yosef Barukah, Bakery Manager at IGA St Ives tells SBS.

“They can buy their basics as well as everyday items knowing that it is Kosher.

“However, not all of our customers who keep Kosher are Jewish. We also have other customers that come here because of convenience, competitive prices but also, cater for those who have allergies as many of our cakes are dairy and gluten-free.”

Kosher foods aren’t just a luxury consumer good. To many Jews, they are an expression of freedom and identity. Making Kosher food available at leading supermarkets means that Jewish Australians can easily stick to dietary laws and to the ‘Kosher’ or ‘Kashrut’ framework on how to live your life. 

“Keeping the laws of Kosher is more than what we digest,” says Rabbi Danny Yaffe, the Rabbi of the City of Sydney and CEO of Sydney CBD Chabad.

“It is a way of life where we recognise that what we digest has a spiritual and emotional impact on how we behave on a daily basis.

“It affects how we act and how we think. For example, the animals that are permitted in the Kosher dietary laws are non-predator animals, specifically herbivores, which live in peace with other animals and do not prey on weaker species. In essence, Kosher is indicative of how we should lead our lives, in peace with others.”

"It is a way of life where we recognise that what we digest has a spiritual and emotional impact on how we behave on a daily basis."

Although everyone who ‘keeps Kosher’ is Jewish, not every Jew adheres strictly to Kosher law.

Sydney-sider couple, Avia Madar, 24 and David Cohen, 27, tell SBS that they follow the dietary laws differently. Cohen does not keep strictly Kosher while Madar adheres more to dietary law. She only eats Kosher meat and if none are available when dining out, she opts for vegetarian meals.

“I decided (without Avia knowing) that I wanted to make more of an effort when we go out to find more vegetarian options instead of just eating non-Kosher meat. We have already ensured that the meat we cook at my home is Kosher for when Avia comes over,” Cohen says.

“I think Kashrut is a deeply personal decision, so it wouldn’t bother me if David wasn’t Kosher, as long as he respects that Kashrut is a way I have chosen to express my Judaism,” Madar explains.

Noodle kugel with cherry sauce
'Kugel's are traditional Jewish casseroles or stews usually made from noodle, egg or potato. This recipe, made with noodel, also features a delicious cherry sauce.

So how do you ‘keep Kosher’?

In some cases, family homes may also have separate sinks and ovens to ensure that milk and meat are kept separate.

Kosher Australia, one of the nation’s main organisations dictating what foods are Kosher and what aren’t, says all food products are spilt into four categories: meat, diary, parve (or foods that are neutral) and non-Kosher. Each category has particular rules and in most cases, these rules intertwine. 

In a Kosher restaurant or catering there is a mashgiach or supervisor who will ensure that the food that is prepared is to these standards and guidelines.

Guidelines also are carried out in the home. For example, when using new cooking utensils, they need to be Kashered or sterilised in a mikvah or ritual bath before use. This also includes sterilising bench tops that food is prepared on. In some cases, family homes may also have separate sinks and ovens to ensure that milk and meat are kept separate. 

There are also different levels of supervision. As discussed by Kosher Australia, most people would believe, there is not a Rabbi monitoring food constantly.

Due to modern technology, it has become easier for companies to adhere to strict guidelines in order to keep their certification. However, food such as meat must always be supervised.

Salt beef: Recipe
I have fond memories of the 24 hour bagel shop on Brick Lane in London where I spent many an early morning devouring salt beef bagels. Salting beef is an age old method of preserving meat, and was popular with early explorers during long voyages. This version is different from the one I made on the boat, as it would have been near impossible to soak the beef overnight on a rocking boat. And I think this recipe is much better anyway.

Top 5 rules to keep Kosher

1)    Don’t mix meat and milk – according to Kosher laws this is one of the biggest no-no’s as they should always be kept separate; get that extra sink while you’re at it.

2)    Keep to salmon and tuna and give the prawns a miss – If you keep kosher, you can’t eat shellfish or fish that lack scales or fins.

3)    Don’t go bacon my heart – but seriously, no eating pork products or animals that have spilt hooves.

4)    Look out for the K, KA or U symbol on the packaging - Like halal certification, there is also a kosher certification on packaged products.

5)    If in doubt, ask – there’s lots of rules and sometimes Kosher products don’t always have a certification symbol on it so here’s a handy guide to see what is what.

It’s all about choice

Having access to Kosher food does vary depending on where a person lives.

Being a minority group, which equates to less than one per cent of Australia’s population, it is impressive that Kosher food can be found in Australia’s State capitals, but even then it is still quite limiting.

Elenore Levi, a 25-year-old Australian who is currently studying at a Yeshiva in New York has witnessed firsthand what is it like to be surrounded by choice.

“Living in a city with limited Kosher infrastructure can feel isolating and challenging to keep Kosher while living on a small wage, or when wanting to meet friends for dinner and you only have two viable places to choose from.”

Levi discusses how these challenges “don’t foster a positive attitude towards Kosher in the broader Jewish community,” which from her experiences “has prevented many from keeping Kosher both in and outside of their home”.

Of course Australia’s 97,000 cannot compete with New York City’s growing 1.1 million. However, it does provide a good example of how choice can help a community flourish in more ways than one. 

Watch Dead Set on Life on SBS Viceland

Dead Set on Life, airing on Viceland on Monday 20 February at 9pm, will explore Kosher foods as host Matty explores one of Canada's oldest Jewish communities. The episode will be available to watch on SBS On Demand after the show airs.  

How to be a Cultural Jew: “I worship Larry David instead of God and think bacon is delicious”
Comment: What does it mean to be Jewish? You might have a Jewish mum, go to Temple regularly and avoid pork? Nope. There’s a lot more to Judaism than you think, and often, it doesn’t even involve being religious.
Comment: Halal hypocrisy
If the anti-halal movement argues against cruelty to animals, Ruby Hamad asks why are campaigners not moved by the similar cruelties that happen in Australian abattoirs on a daily basis?
The lowdown on halal certification
Like mosques, headscarves and face-veils, halal certification is seen by many as a sign that Muslims are changing the Australian way of life.