Kosher food can be so complex that sometimes it’s easier to peel away the layers of what Kosher is not to arrive at its true essence.
Kosher does not refer to a style of cooking. This label on a dish usually refers to the category of traditional Jewish fare which have come to be associated with Jewish traditions, such as blintzes and matzah ball soup, and there is no thing as “kosher style” that has the true meaning of the rules of what can be eaten. When a restaurant calls itself “kosher-style,” it usually means that the restaurant serves dishes that are considered traditional Eastern Jewish foods, and it almost invariably means that the food is not actually kosher.
Any style of food may be kosher or non-kosher. Foods that are certified kosher are prepared and selected in accordance with Jewish law. This can be done in any cuisine from Asian to Tunisian, with more and more exciting non-eastern European cuisines popping up, such as Got Kosher?‘s inspired translation of international.
When something is trayf it means that it is not Kosher. The word comes from the word terayfa, “torn” (from the commandment not to eat meat that has been “torn” by other animals). Kosher refers to Jewish dietary laws (laws of kashrut), and the word stems from the Anglicized form of the Hebrew kasher (literally “good” or “proper”). Jews throughout history observed these kosher laws as an opportunity for obedience to God and for preserving Jewish unity and identity. It has also come to signify “fit for ritual use.”
Rabbis or other religious officials do not “bless” food to make it kosher. Observant Jews recite blessings over food before eating it, but these have nothing to do with making the food kosher.
But they are permissible according to kosher laws only when they are grown and prepared under Jewish supervision. The origin of this injunction is laws against eating or drinking anything offered to idols, and the fact that Noah got drunk when he made wine and something fuzzy happened with his son is additional caution against grapes and drink.
Restrictions of what animal parts and by-products can be eaten include the flesh, organs, and the animal’s milk (but not together), and only animals that chew their cud and have cloven hooves fall into the category of kosher (Lev. 11:3; Deut. 14:6). This means that pork, camel, and rabbits may not be eaten. It also means that gelatin is not kosher because it is usually made from horse hooves. For the same reasons, most hard cheeses are not kosher because they are processed using an enzyme or a blood-clot from the stomach lining of non-kosher animals.
Orthodox Jews usually fully obey what are known as the divine laws of kashrut, in all time and places. Conservative Jews keep kosher consistently, though usually with slightly less strict rules. Reform Jews usually do not keep kosher. There is also a variety of adherence, with some Jews keeping kosher only at home. (As the old saying goes, “where there are four Jews, there are five opinions.”)
One such part is the sciatic nerve in the hindquarters, which is extremely difficult to remove. Thus some of the choicest cuts of meat – like filet mignon and sirloin steak – are forbidden. The fat surrounding the animal’s organs is also trayf. And a biochemical difference does exist between this fat and the fat surrounding the muscles (which is kosher).
Only domesticated fowl, such as chicken, turkey, quail, and geese may be eaten. Birds such as eagles, hawks, and vultures cannot.
Although the Torah allows for certain exceptions, such as locusts, rabbis are divided, so it’s easier to just put all insects in the forbidden category. This also applies to the many additives and food colorings made from insects.
In general, Orthodox Jews usually only eat foods certified kosher by a trained rabbi, and a supervisor called a mashgiach is hired by every certified kosher restaurant to be on premise at all times. The “seal of approval” indicating that a mashgiach has observed and approved the product’s preparation is called a hechsher. Most Conservative Jews who observe kosher laws are satisfied to read product ingredient labels and reform Jews follow their own instincts.
The letter does not signify kosher approval by a mashgiach. Instead, the manufacturer is calling its product kosher – which has been proven untrue in many cases. Also because a letter cannot be trademarked, any product can carry a K on its label. The letter U inside a circle, which is the certification symbol of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, means it is kosher. A P inside a circle denotes a food fit for Passover (when fermented foods are not permitted), while the letter M identifies a meat product, and the letter D is the mark for dairy.
The word pareve or parve, indicates a neutral food which can be eaten with meat or dairy. But that’s a story for another day.
With the goal of “feeding the body and the soul,” chef-owner Alain Cohen of Got Kosher? Café, Bakery, Catering and Provisions, shares the values of kosher practice, and redefines kosher cuisine with his own original, healthy, popular creations. His culinary inspiration draws from his own lively Tunisian origins, further refined with the French technique he gained working in his family’s landmark restaurant in Paris. Alain first earned American acclaim with his signature thin-crust pretzel challahs.