South Korea is attracting more Jewish business travelers, diplomats, members of the military and English teachers, but there is a lot of misunderstanding over what is and isn’t kosher food. Some also believe that Muslim dietary standards, called halal in Arabic, are inter-changeable with kosher, but this is not the case.
For example, organizers of the recent G20 economic summit in Seoul were asked to serve kosher meals for 50 participants, but Rabbi Osher Litzman of newly established Chabad of Korea (link) told the coordinators that there’s more to kosher than roasting kosher meat (link). They left the catering to him.
So did the Prime Minister’s office when dozens of Jews were among 1,000 businesspeople visiting the country during an annual commerce exhibition (link).
The number of Jews living in South Korea is estimated at around 200, but there is no meeting place outside of the U.S. base at Yongsan in Seoul and few options for finding kosher food. That’s why the Israeli ambassador to Korea in 2007 asked the Chabad organization, part of a sect of Orthodox Judaism, to send an emissary rabbi to Korea. The Chabad center was established in the foreigner-dense Itaewon area of Seoul in April 2008.
To many non-Jews, the word kosher has passed into common usage to mean “proper,” “legitimate” or “virtuous.” Those are the basic translations of the Hebrew word kashrut, but to Jews it has a more precise meaning. Rules for kashrut encompass more than a list of foragers, fish and fowl on and off the menu.
Korean cuisine often isn’t thought of as kosher because of pork and certain seafood are in a number of dishes, including many variations of baechu kimchi (배추 김치), the ever-present spicy pickled cabbage side dish.
The basic laws of kashrut begin in the Bible (Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14) but they don’t end there. The Bible has detailed explanations on how to visually identify which land animals, birds and fish are considered fit for human consumption. People find many legitimate health reasons for eating kosher animals and abstaining from non-kosher animals. However, to Rabbi Litzman, there’s only one reason that matters, “Simply because G-d commanded us to do it.”
For example, Jewish rules regarding food includes separating between dairy and meat, using dairy products only from kosher animals and not eating most bugs. Jews divide food into three categories: meat, dairy and pareve (a Hebrew word that means “neutral” and includes fruits, vegetables, grains, coffee, tea, eggs and fish).
Jewish food law forbids serving meat and dairy products at the same meal. For example, there’s no such thing as a kosher cheeseburger. Even if the meat and the cheese are certified kosher, the moment the cheese sits on top of the beef patty, the burger is no longer considered kosher.
Litzman also gets milk regularly from a specific cow on a farm outside Seoul to make their own cheese products to ensure that the cheese is made without the use of rennet, which is usually obtained from the stomach of a young sheep, cow or goat.
The separation of meat and dairy extends to utensils, cutting boards and dishes.
Even vegetables must be thoroughly inspected and washed to make sure they are clear of even the smallest insects before eating. The Chabad Kosher Handbook explains, “A more common problem with vegetables involves possible insect infestation. The prohibition against consuming insects, even very tiny ones — as long as they are visible to the naked eye — is mentioned five times in the Torah and is very strict.” Leafy vegetables, such as lettuce and spinach are washed and inspected leaf by leaf. Other vegetables, such as broccoli, are soaked in water and the water is changed out several times to insure that any small insects are rinsed away from the food.
Kashrut also includes detailed rules about how an animal is slaughtered.
“Kosher slaughtering is to be done by an expert, using a special extremely-sharp unserrated knife, cutting the neck of a kosher and healthy animal to over half depth with no delay,” Litzman said. “These laws are to prevent the animal from superfluous pain.” This method of slaughter also encourages the complete drainage of blood from the animal, which is required for the meat to be considered kosher.
At this time, there are no kosher meat retailers or wholesalers in Korea. However, California-based Teva Meats has expressed interest in selling kosher meat to the Korean market, according to Litzman.
Certified-kosher meat became increasingly popular among non-Jews in the U.S. due to public concerns about meat safety, mainly “mad cow” degenerative brain disease. Potential for importing any tainted U.S. meat to Korea brought those concerns across the Pacific.
Animals raised for kosher slaughter are on a strict vegetarian diet. They are never fed animal by-products. Bits of bovine nervous systems in feed was linked to the spread of “mad cow disease” in British beef.
Creatures destined for kosher slaughter must be in good health. An animal too sick or disabled to walk into the slaughterhouse, often called a “downer,” would be disqualified.
After slaughter, a kosher animal’s internal organs are closely inspected as another check for a health condition or defect that would have killed the animal within a year. If found, the meat wouldn’t be kosher.
At this time, most of kosher foods in Korea are imported. Grocers — both foreign- and Korean-owned — that sell imported kosher foods include Costco, E-Mart, Lottemart, Red Door, Hannam Supermarket and Haddon House.
Some kosher products manufactured in South Korea, which Litzman and some other visiting rabbis travel to inspect periodically.
“The process is usually simple,” Litzman said. “The Kashrut organization checks the list of products and process of the food, and a trained mashgiach [kosher food inspector] visits the site from time to time to make sure there are no changes.”
Kosher supervision is more stringent for dining establishments.
“In case of restaurants, a mashgiach has to be there at every moment meals are prepared,” Litzman said. “(Vegetarian) restaurants are not kosher, unless someone is checking the vegetables for insects.”
Another part of the mashgiach’s job is to inspect all restaurant food deliveries to make sure the ingredients are kosher and any surprise substitutions are kosher, too.
Due to the expense involved for a restaurant to obtaining kosher certification, a restaurant possessing kosher certification would prominently display that certificate.