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Fostering Jewish-Indian relations – one kosher samosa at a time

October 19, 2009 – 10:52 am16 Comments
Of course, some people are members of both the Jewish community and the Indian community. Source: Forward.com

Of course, some people are members of both the Jewish community and the Indian community. Source: Forward.com

By Anthony Frosh

Many months ago, perhaps last summer, I was walking down an East St Kilda street with RachSD, and in front of us were two young men who appeared to be from the Indian subcontinent. They were having a conversation on which I was desperately trying to eavesdrop.

“So, where did they live before that?”

“They were basically like us; they just lived in communities around the world.”

Unfortunately, I can’t provide you with any more verbatim quotes.   Firstly, it was long time ago, and memory fades.  Also, it was hard to hear them.  They spoke quietly, there was traffic noise, and most damagingly, RachSD unfortunately did not pick up that I was attempting to eavesdrop on the people walking in front of us (whose fascinating conversation she was oblivious to), and thus she kept trying to engage me in whatever it was she was talking about.

These young men seemed to be talking about the peculiar Jewish people with whom they now found themselves sharing a neighbourhood. From the bits and pieces I heard, there were at least a few inaccuracies in their understanding of who these Jewish people were, and where they came from.  Part of me wanted to interrupt these young men and say, “Hey, I’m a Jew, allow me to be of assistance with your questions.”

If truth be known, I did do something like this once.  Nearly a decade ago in a library in Ichinomiya, Japan (a town of over 300,000, where most likely I was the only Jewish resident), I saw an old Japanese man with a large stack of books on the desk in front of him, all the books about Jews. “Sumimasen…” I interrupted him. Unfortunately, due to the linguistic barrier, and perhaps the old man’s shyness, I was not able to be of much assistance with whatever it was he was researching.  From my limited Japanese, he seemed more interested in asking if I was married… perhaps he had a shidduch in mind.  Anyway, back to the topic…

The Indian community in Australia has been growing steadily for some time now.  If one walks down Carlisle St in Balaclava, it is fairly evident that after Jews, the next largest ethnic minority in the neighbourhood are Indians.  Our community leaders need to be reaching out to the leaders of the Indian community, in order to establish what ought to be a natural alliance.  We have plenty to offer them, and they have plenty to offer us in return.

Firstly, there’s the CSG.  Anyone who takes the slightest interest in the news would be aware that the Indian community has recently experienced violent, racist, unprovoked attacks.  Our own CSG could liaise with suitable people from the Indian community, train them, and help them to establish their own CSG.

Secondly, there’s the restaurant business.  It’s no secret that kosher restaurants have a longevity problem.  Meanwhile, Indian restaurants are proliferating everywhere, and even those whose kashrut observance prevents them from setting foot in these establishments would have to admit that they smell great from the outside.  Yet, as successful as these Indian restaurants appear to be, the proprietors are not without their own problems.

As most people would know, Hindus are forbidden from eating beef.  But if you peruse the menus of a random assortment of Indian restaurants, you will find that most of them have beef on their menu.  “How can this be?” you might ask.  Well, as one Indian restaurateur explained it to me: when he initially opened his restaurant in Prahran, he did not offer beef.  However, he found he could not attract  the Aussie consumer without having beef on his menu.  “They kept asking, ‘where’s the beef?’”  And thus with much conflict in his heart, he introduced beef to his restaurant’s menu, believing he would be financially ruined if he did not. According to this restaurateur — who for obvious reasons did not want to be named — he would cause enormous shame and disgrace to his family back home if they found out about the beef.

The answer, of course, is the kosher beefless Indian restaurant.  Indian restaurateurs agree to make delicious kosher Indian food for the Jewish community, and we agree to eat it without pressuring them to offer us the sacred cow.

I could go on about other synergies, but let’s hear what the readers have to say!

This article has now also been published at AussieIndoLanka

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  • rachsd says:

    I supose that I should apologise for interfering with your attempt to eavesdrop…

  • ariel says:

    I second the Indian eateries motion!
    There’s also need in Sydney for kosher Indian…

  • The Hasid says:

    I can highly, highly recommend Gujju’s Cafe & Chat House in East Malvern (for the Melbournites) – pure vegetarian! Practically kosher.

  • ariel says:

    Re Hasid’s comment, did anyone see the article from Melbourne Kashrut/Kosher Australia about eating at vegan places? They make some good points, but I know many Orthodox families (and a rabbi or two) who eat at these places.

    The 2 main points were:
    a) Some ingredients acceptable to vegans were surprisingly animal products (apparently if it’s microscopic they don’t mind) and therefore not kosher

    b) There is likely a concern regarding bishul akkum, food that may be technically kosher, but was cooked by a non-Jew.

  • rachsd says:

    Ariel, do you mean the article by Yankel Wajsbort in this newsletter?

    If so, I think that the article is problematic. It presents three main reasons why vegetarian / vegan restaurants aren’t kosher. The third is completely extraneous to kashrut (marat ayin and not wanting to detract from business at kosher restaurants), and should be left to the individual to decide.

    The second contains a number of objections that relate only to some vegetarian restaurants and certainly no vegan restaurants (for example, serving cheese with rennet and some vegetarian restaurants also will not serve cheese with rennet). It also touches on bishul akum which is actually quite complex. There are a number of exceptions (detailed here) and some rule that bishul akum does not affect the kashrut status of dishes.

    The first reason like the second comes back to standards of vegetarianism, arguing that some ‘vegetarians’ actually eat animal products. The fact is that there are restaurants that observe veganism for religious (buddhist) reasons and are likely to be fairly strict in their observance. It would be more interesting to see an article about the strictest vegan restaurants than just ‘vegetarian’ restaurants in general.

  • ariel says:

    thanks rachsd that was the one

  • Rachel,

    Marat ayin is a rule in Halacha, and not a matter for individuals to decide. If a strictly vegan restaurant became generally known as a place that was also kosher, that would mitigate the problem of marat ayin.

    I agree with you that many strict vegan restaurants could well be deemed kosher.

    But why on earth would anyone want to go to a restaurant and not get a good piece of fleish???!!! I still remember going sevreal years ago to the superb Darjeeling in Paris and have yet to find another kosher Indian eatery to rival the experience.

  • ariel says:

    There are numerous Sefardi families in Australia, many of whom hail from the Baghdadi communities of India.

    We should suggest to some of them to establish a kosher Indian restaurant or two in Australia…

  • ariel says:

    David, could you comment on the issue of eating off non-Jewish dishes?
    Do they have to be toivel‘ed?

  • frosh says:

    David, it’s interesting that you crave fleish, in the context of discussing vegetarian/vegans restaurants.

    While this does not so much apply top Indian restaurants which use a lot of lentils and chickpeas etc for protein, but 100% vegetarian/vegan Chinese restaurants, such as Enlightened Cuisine in South Melbourne, or Veggie Hut in Box Hill (and there are other similar establishments in the other Australian capital cities) specialize in mock animal products.

    And even so, when I eat there, I cannot bring myself to order mock animal product from treif animals. That’s right, I refuse to order shark fin soup or sweet & sour pork etc, even though I understand on a cognitive level that these foods are actually vegan. Emotionally, I feel far more comfortable ordering (mock) sizzling beef! Yes, I know this is not overly logical behaviour.

  • Ariel,

    If the dishes are not owned by a Jew, they don’t have to be toiveled. See here, Q38. There are quite a few things there that are relevant to this topic.


    While I do prefer the genuine article, I probably would not be averse to trying mock meat from a kosher vegan place if it actually tasted like meat. I’ve had the kosher mock crab and it tastes delicious.

    From a kashrut perspective, it’s very important to distinguish between vegetarian and vegan. Truly “frum” vegan is strict on utensils which makes it much easier to be kosher.

  • rachsd says:

    Hi David,

    Thanks for posting that link. It seems like a great resource, and also very different to the approach of Melbourne Kashrut, which seems to follow a philosophy in which anything remotely controversial is completely outlawed. I have noticed that in recent years, quinoa moved from ‘possibly kitniyot’ to kitniyot in Melbourne but in many other parts of the world, the Orthodox kashrut authorities say it’s ok. The explanation given by Melbourne Kashrut is that many people don’t know how to check the quinoa properly. Another response to this problem would be to (a) provide education on how to check properly or (b) caution people not to use quinoa unless they know how to check it properly. Pumpkin (the vegetable, not the seeds) also seems to be a concern in Melbourne in recent years. I suppose this is not disimilar to the vegan/vegetarian straw man argument.

  • ariel says:

    rachsd, i agree.

    as a wise man once said, “there is no such thing as kosher, only varying degrees of treif”

    people have different standards and the KA and MK should explain that some may be willing to eat something and others not.

  • Yaakov says:

    …which is odd because “beginners” books on Halacha such as Shaar l’halakha suggest that the cooking need be only supervised by a Jew, and if that’s wrong I guess I better start asking the various sandwich-hands at glicks if they’re Jewish, especially when it’s clear that they are not.

    I’ve worked with Indians in India, for a charity http://www.vikasana.net, I’ll be there in 3 weeks, if you’re serious I’ll bring back the recipies from poor people who cook everything from basic ingredients and who knows, there could be kosher masala dosa at some Shira kiddush. The entire charity is egetarian and there’s no animal rennet in the cheese (which is something of the consistency of labeneh)… And see how popular it is.

  • frosh says:

    Masala dosa – it doesn’t get any better than that – one of my all time favourite things to eat!

    However, I don’t think it works as well as Shabbat kiddush food, as dosa is best when it’s straight off the pan.

    Nevertheless, I’m open to try it :-)

  • L says:

    I would LOVE to see everyone wearing bright saris, rather than just black leggings and metallicus tops….

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