What is Kosher
The kitchen is the most important room in the Jewish home. Jewish traditions tend to center around food and as a result Jewish families spend a lot of time in the kitchen together. Jewish kitchens are kosher which means there are traditions for handling and preparing the food. There are varying degrees of ‘kosher’ in a kitchen and many families keep to some of the rules if not most of them.
The rules have been around for yonks [think biblical times] and make sense for the days where refrigeration and poverty played a role in how fresh your food was. They are observed today because they still make sense. For example, a fairly basic rule is to not mix milk and meat products, ever. They don’t share any kitchen elements, not even are the utensils rinsed in the same sink. This rule has direct benefits for digestion. [An interesting side note is that people who suffer from bowel inflamation diseases are often encouraged to keep kosher as the food undergoes stricter health guidelines and therefore less likely to cause irritation.]
At the risk of going off on a tangent I’ll just tell you a little story about my neighbour. We used to have a very religious couple live along our road. They kept a strict kosher kitchen. One day when she was about six months pregnant I saw the ambulance outside their house. I worried about her and the unborn baby’s safety, as you would. A few days later she was home and I made a point of checking on her, without trying to invade their privacy. Embarrassed, she confided that she’d had what’s known as, diarrhea. She’d never had it before in her life, nor had her husband. They had NEVER had a tummy upset, EVER! They didn’t know what it was and it scared them enough to call an ambulance. Can you imagine never ever having an upset tummy? They live with such tight restrictions on their food prep that the food has never had any element of questionable status. One could counter argue that germs make us stronger, blah blah blah and I’m definitely a 3-second kiss-it-if-you-dropped-it kind of girl but their lifestyle is fascinating in that respect…
Besides the no meat+milk rule, some other common rules include no pork [it's actually all creatures with a pronged hoof] no shellfish [or more accurately, we can only eat creatures from the sea that have fins or scales] and no bugs–which is surpringly one of the hardest rules to follow because so many things are coloured with ‘natural colouring’ which more often than not is ground up beetles. Want to freak yourself out? Google: Cochineal! Beetle-made food colouring is found in everything from red-tinged juices [i.e. lots of Tropicana products and equiv] sodas and fast food milkshakes to brown sugar and especially foods targeted at kids. ‘No artificial colourings’ may very well mean it contains ground beetles, which is disgusting and definitely not kosher, blech!
When Jewish families move to a new home, they often book the Rabbi to come and ‘kosherize’ the kitchen which is one of the obligatory services a Rabbi provides. It involves his coming out to the home with a small blow torch [think creme brule!] and burning away any food in cooking prep areas including the inside of the oven. This is to start the kitchen over as a clean slate, free from any meat/milk/non-kosher concerns. He also oversees the dipping of all cooking equipment, accessories, dishes and utensils in a Mikveh [natural pool of water] to prep the kitchen for kosher practice for the same reason. It’s also a tradition centred around respect.
Kosher kitchens tend to keep all milk and meat seperate. For this reason, people have two of everything. In my kitchen, we have two of everything including the basic appliances but we don’t consume meat so our kitchen is considered a dairy kitchen where fish is allowed but meat prep is not.
Unofficially, basic vegetarian foods are by default typically kosher but kosher foods [because they include kosher meat which is bled and prepared in an uber sanitary way] are obviously not considered vegetarian. It’s quite common to encounter Jewish families that are pesche vegetarian. This is just a relaxed way to keep a kitchen we are proud of but also enables us to eat in restaurants without concern.
At the grocery store, there are products designated as Kosher. This means the product came from a source or factory that has been approved by a Rabbi. We recognize these products by special symbols on the packaging. Some very common symbols include:
And it’s on thousands of products in the average grocery store.
I hope this helps give you a brief overview of what Kosher is all about. If you’re fascinated with more details about the rules specifically, there are some great sources including these:
Jusaism 101: Kashrut [that's the practice of keeping Kosher]