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Dinner in Manhattan

In the U.S., Indian vegetarian kosher restaurants are a success, writes M. KALYANARAMAN.

DANIEL E. ARNALL

Lexington Avenue in New York's "Little India" is lined with kosher Indian restaurants. The Chrysler Building stands in the distance.

FOR Lenny Bloom, a 60-year-old Orthodox Jew, New York is a city where he can fully practice his faith and enjoy the city's special delights. After all, there are more Jews here than in Jerusalem.

One Sunday, recently, Bloom was having dinner with his wife, Judy in "Udipi Palace", a vegetarian Indian restaurant on Lexington Avenue in downtown Manhattan.

Wearing his traditional yarmulke (skull cap) and mixing sambhar with a piece of idli, he said he liked spicy Indian food. His favourite was the thin rice and lentil crepe with a potato-onion filling called "Masala Dosai". But, as an observant Jew, Bloom's food had to be kosher and all the food he was eating in this restaurant was certified as kosher by an Orthodox Rabbi. Maheen, a Tamil who emigrated from Nagercoil, Tamil Nadu, cooks the food in "Udipi Palace". He said the Rabbi, who inspects their restaurant every week, ensures that the milk and cheese they use do not come from a farm where there is also a piggery. The rabbi also checks if anything un-kosher goes into the production of the restaurant's cooking oils.

"Udipi Palace" is one of the five Indian vegetarian kosher restaurants on 28th Street and Lexington Avenue. These restaurants are a success because Indian vegetarian food, especially South Indian cuisine, conforms easily to Jewish dietary laws and the Indian vegetarian diet is an old, and tested, tradition. The kosher tag brings approximately 30 per cent of the restaurants' revenue, according to Nitin Vyas, owner of "Madras Mahal", the first of these restaurants to get the kosher certificate. "Madras Mahal" was already a kosher restaurant when Vyas stepped in in 1996. For him, kosher is a blessing that the Rabbi gives on the food.

Kosher rules, which are derived from the Bible, determine what can be eaten by Jews.

As one goes higher up in the food chain, kosher rules become more complicated. While vegetables, fruits and cereals are kosher, animals (pigs, birds of prey like eagles, vultures) including those which live on the sea floor (eels and shell fish) are all un-kosher. There are rules about what parts of kosher animals are kosher.

Etan Tokayer, an Orthodox Rabbi, said that kosher also means that the entire production line is kosher. He said even in vegetarian food the rules can get complicated. Leafy vegetables like cabbage, artichoke and radish have to be cleaned thoroughly as they might contain bugs which the Bible forbids people to eat. In Leviticus 14, God forbids man from eating "flying creeping things" except the locust, the bald locust, the beetle and the grasshopper.

While Jewish scholars have tried to explain these elaborate dietary laws in terms of hygiene, Ari Goldman, professor of journalism in Columbia University, New York and author of the book Being Jewish, says that kosher rules are perhaps just rituals. He says that they set Jews apart from others by requiring that they eat differently. Kosher gives a sense of community and identity to observant Jews, he says.

For other Americans, kosher is one more standard in addition to the usual Food and Drug Administration standards. Tokayer said that as safety and quality conscious consumers they support it because kosher certification would mean that there were Rabbis going around inspecting the products. There are many kosher certifying agencies in New York where state law ensures that no business can call itself kosher without a kosher certificate.

Companies have changed their ingredients to tap the kosher market which is now estimated to be $3.5 billion in America, according to a report by the agency Marketwatch. For instance, in 1997, Nabisco made its popular "Oreos cookie kosher" by replacing un-kosher lard with vegetable shortening. A company spokesperson said that its sales have been increasing over the years and now stands at $840 million. She claimed that the replacement also helped to reduce cholesterol levels in the cookie.

Khader, Maheen's brother, said it was important that his Jewish customers were happy. He said, in Tamil, "If we want to run this business here, we will have to be kosher." There are three million Jews in the New York metropolitan area. Yet, kosher did not alter Indian vegetarian cuisine in any way, he said.

On the contrary, Indian vegetarian cuisine is well suited to some kosher practices.

Rabbi Nachum Zvi Josephy, who certifies "Pongal", a restaurant opposite to "Udipi Palace", said that an important kosher rule is the separation of milk and meat. In South Indian vegetarian cuisine, milk products are not used much. Rabbi Josephy said breakfast items like idli, dosai, uthappam and lunch and dinner made of rice with lentils and legumes are all Pareve, which means that they neither have milk nor meat. They satisfy an important Orthodox Jewish Kosher rule that says that milk or milk products should not be eaten soon after eating meat.

Josephy said ghee or butter-oil, which is extensively used in traditional Indian cooking, is home-made and organic. This made it easier to certify it as kosher, he said. Rabbi Josephy said if ghee had been produced in a factory, then he would have to ensure that the enzymes and preservatives used in its production were also derived from kosher sources. Lenny Bloom said, "The two are very different cultures. But somehow it works." It takes a New York to make it work because kosher vegetarian Indian restaurants make business sense.

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