As interest in kosher food surges, chefs take it gourmet

The market for kosher products is surging – driven by growing interest among non-Jews – and with it interest in making kosher cooking more upscale. 

Christa Case Bryant / The Christian Science Monitor
Chef Yochanan Lambiase, who in 2004 established the world's first kosher culinary institute, explains what to look for in a fish at a shop in Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda market.

The press of humanity at Jerusalem’s Machane Yehuda market just might cause the uninitiated visitor to do a face-plant in a heap of eggplants.

On the eve of Passover, which begins in Israel with tonight’s traditional seder meal, the shuk is jammed with everyone from hippie tourists to religious Jews with black hats and tight side curls. Amid the shouts of vendors and the swish of plastic bags, the ultra-Orthodox and ultra-modern jockey for everything from live fish to fresh garlic stalks to rich Israeli cheese and artisan breads. Nearly everything (except the bread) is labeled “Kosher for Passover.”

“It’s the new and old noodling together. I love the feel of the past and the progression of the future,” says Yochanan Lambiase, a fifth-generation chef who fairly glides through the aisles of Machane Yehuda as he explores the magnificent palette with a small group of journalists. “That’s very much Israeli society.” 

While most of the shoppers here are Jewish, it’s no longer just Jews who are buying food grown and packaged in accordance with Jewish law, especially in North America.

Vegetarians, vegans, Hindus, Seventh-Day Adventists, and even Muslims have been increasingly choosing kosher products, driving a 64 percent growth in the US kosher market from 2003 to 2008, when it was estimated to be worth $12.5 billion. Since then the increase has been more gradual, but kosher foods remain one of the most steadily growing sectors of the expanding ethnic food market in North America, according to a March 2012 Agri-Trade Service report

“I feel the kosher food industry has reached a pinnacle, and now we have to move it into the 21st century,” says chef Lambiase, who established the world’s first kosher culinary institute in the world here in Jerusalem in 2004 and is co-launching a new tour of the Mahane Yehuda market with guide Cliff Churgin.

Mr. Lambiase sees himself as a pioneer of sorts. He was raised in a secular British home, and his kosher career was sparked by a love of cooking rather than of Jewish law, which forbids the consumption of pork and shellfish; requires that meat and dairy dishes be kept separate; and has strict rules governing the slaughter of animals.

But he quickly became drawn in by the religious aspects. “Kosher isn’t anything to do with physical health, it has to do with spiritual health,” says Lambiase, who follows the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, a Hasidic branch of Judaism. Today, he sees other newly observant Jews as playing a role in bringing kosher food to the gastronomic attention of the world.

“I think there’s been a huge revival in Jewish religiosity over the past 10 years and … Jewish people normally know what good food is and they’re not going to take [their non-Jewish friends] out for gefilte fish.” 

He heads back to his culinary institute, journalists in tow. We are more adept with our pens than with chef's knives, but he and fellow kosher chef Zev Beck are patient.

Despite the cilantro flying, tomatoes squirting on chef Beck’s jeans, and a stray garlic bulb rolling under the stainless-steel tables, after a couple of hours the rich aroma of fresh bread, shakshoukas (poached eggs in a spicy tomato base), and broiled eggplants garnished with homemade tahina wafts through the school.

If Lambiase and Mr. Beck can teach even journalists to be kosher cooks, their prospects for expanding the global ranks of kosher chefs look promising.

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