Many countries have introduced portions of Japanese cuisine into their culture. Some may adhere to the traditional preparations of the cuisine, but in some cultures the dishes have been adapted to fit the taste of the local population. Specifically, the adaptation of Japanese food in America has become such a huge phenomenon that American Jews have recently espoused their own version of Japanese cuisine that adheres to the guidelines of kashrut—Jewish laws regarding food.
Japanese food products are known to be healthier and cleaner, and are made with the best quality material. One of the reasons for long life spans in Japanese society is due to of the types of foods they eat, which are very healthy and simple. Japanese people often look much younger than their actual age, partly due to the fact that they traditionally eat very healthy. They tend to use the best equipment for food production and provide the highest quality food products. These constitute some of the reasons why Japanese food has become so popular in America. Jewish people are particularly attracted to these qualities of Japanese food and have subsequently figured out ways to adapt the food to fit the parameters of Judaism.
Even though Jews have been eating raw fish long before the advent of the sushi bar (for example, herring), sushi presents an intriguing, complex challenge for kashrut experts. Before explaining how Judaism has adopted Japanese food, we will explain the history of Japanese cuisine.
Translated from the Japanese word, “sushi” means “vinegar rice.” In the seventh century, the Japanese acquired the new technique of pickling, which consisted of packing fish with rice. As the fish fermented, the rice produced lactic acid, which in turn caused the pickling of the pressed fish. Nare-Sushi is around 1,300 years old and refers to the finished edible product. The Japanese are credited with first preparing sushi as a complete dish—eating the fermented rice together with the preserved fish. This combination of rice and fish is known as nare-zushi, or “aged sushi.” In the 1970s, because of the advances in refrigeration and the ability to ship fresh fish over long distances, the demand for sushi in certain parts of the world exploded. Sushi bars opened throughout Japan, and a growing system of suppliers and distributors has allowed sushi to expand worldwide. As a result of this new emergence, sushi bars are now commonplace in New York’s most popular neighborhoods, shopping centers, and even in airports. It is a cuisine that has been embraced by Americans, specifically Jewish Americans.
Modern sushi chefs have introduced new ingredients, preparation, and serving methods, which have allowed the cuisine to become far more accessible to a variety of diets, specifically kosher. Food forms a vital part of the Jewish culture, as Jews love to sit together, share stories, and of course share food. By removing certain ingredients, such as shellfish, and replacing them with tasty kosher and vegetarian alternatives, the opportunity for kosher Japanese food is endless.
Why is Japanese Food so Popular Among Jews in the First Place?
The food is rice- and noodle-based and easy to share, which is similar to most Asian cuisines. Almost everyone seems to like sushi, but more the American style “Rainbow Rolls” rather than the traditional Nigiri or Temaki sushi. Presentation is a key reason: the food looks good, fresh, and healthy.
Generating over twelve billion dollars in annual sales, kosher food is a big business. Kosher food requires independent certification from agencies that have saved American kosher supervision from fraud and corruption and turned it into an increasingly valuable market. Currently, a network of over three hundred private certifiers ensures the kosher status of food for over twelve million Americans, of whom only around eight percent are religious Jews. Similar to organic food supporters, an increasing number of consumers see rabbinic supervision as a way to personalize today’s vastly multifaceted, globalized system of food production and adapt it to the Jewish population.
There are various halachik (interpretation of the Jewish law) questions in relation to sushi specifically and why an observant Jew may not even buy raw sushi from a non-certified establishment. Kosher cooking requires keeping different storage, different dishes, and different utensils for meat foods and dairy foods. Vegetables can be stored with dairy foods unless they’re being cooked with meat. However, since sushi doesn’t require the involvement of milk or meat, many of the serving dilemmas can be avoided by simply using a sealed package of chopsticks and disposable plastic plates and cups. The easiest way to have a kosher rice cooker is to make sure the only thing that it is being used for is rice. That way there is no question about whether it is for meat or dairy.
Traditional Japanese cooking doesn’t use milk, meat, or cheese at all, although some modern recipes have imported them from other countries’ recipes. So the two important questions pertaining to Jewish laws are whether the eggs have blood spots and whether the fish and seaweed are kosher. Some of the kosher ingredients that are the same as what is used in a non-kosher restaurant are:
Kikkoman soy sauce
Nakano rice vinegar
All of the vegetables
Pink pickled ginger
Basically, any fish that doesn’t have both scales and fins is not kosher. Although many of the ingredients are the same, there are some items that are essential ingredients in Japanese food that kosher restaurants are not able to serve. For example, Jews cannot eat eel, unagi, shrimp, octopus, squid, clams, oyster, lobster, or crab.
What are some specific food ingredients that are problematic?
Wasabi is a separate problem. It is a member of the horseradish or mustard family, although real wasabi is one of the most rare and difficult vegetables in the world to grow. There has been a low supply of fresh wasabi rhizomes in the last twenty years. Therefore, the green clump on the side of most sushi dishes is rarely real wasabi. More commonly, it is ordinary horseradish or mustard with food coloring and therefore requires a reliable kosher certification. Wasabi is often prepared by grating the fresh rhizome against a rough surface. Some Japanese Sushi Chefs will use only a sharkskin grater. The sharkskin gives grated wasabi a smooth, soft, and pungent consistency. This procedure certainly could complicate kashrut matters, because sharkskin is not kosher.
Nori is seaweed paper. It is an original Japanese food product made from various species of red algae by a shredding and drying process that is similar to papermaking. The main concern for Jews with nori is insects. Nori is a vegetable product and, like all vegetables, it must be checked for bugs. The most common insects in nori are sea horses and mini shrimps, which are both not kosher. Checking nori is more difficult than other vegetables products since you are not simply looking at the exterior or a whole vegetable, but multiple layers of the thin toasted sheets where the bugs can hide.
A very interesting question has developed because of the introduction of sushi to the kosher world. The concept of needing a bishul yisroel (a Jewish presence in the cooking process) plays a major role in kosher certification. The two basic requirements for a food to be under this category are:
1) It must be a food that one would serve at a royal banquet
2) It is generally eaten cooked, not raw. If the food is normally eaten raw but you decided to cook it anyway (like a baked apple) it is still kosher even without a Jewish supervisor. Some Jews propose that sushi does not require the presence of a Jew because sushi is usually eaten raw.
What Is the Deal with the Kosher Japanese Restaurants in New York City?
Jewish people often own the kosher Japanese restaurants in New York City. They hire chefs who are accustomed to Japanese culture to prepare the food. The reason why they tend to open is to cater to the desires of Jewish people. Japanese food, specifically sushi, has become a popular phenomenon within the Jewish world. The majority of customers at a restaurant like Sushi Metsuyan in Kew Gardens are Jews who are looking for a kosher Japanese style restaurant. The owner of Sushi Metsuyan said that of all the kosher Japanese restaurants he knows about, many of them have a Jewish owner. The reason for this is that it is much more costly to maintain a kosher restaurant. He explained that to open any kosher restaurant involves many extra prices and difficulties in order to obtain and maintain rabbinic approval. In general, the kosher Japanese restaurants are more expensive than non-kosher Japanese restaurants because of the extra preparations and precautions that are required by Jewish law.
Based on the information from Sushi Metsuyan (a kosher restaurant) and Nana Sushi (a non-kosher restaurant)
it is apparent that kosher Japanese styled restaurants differ greatly from non-kosher restaurants. Although there are some items that are typically the same, such as the vegetable rolls and many of the entrees, there are also great disparities between the menus. The variety of rolls in Nana Sushi’s menu are much more diverse than in Sushi Metsuyan’s. Nana Sushi offers many different options of fish, such as shrimp and eel, which kosher restaurants cannot serve. The specialty rolls also vary, although that is found among most Japanese restaurants. Another difference between the two menus is the pricing. Below is a chart that depicts some of the price distinctions:
|Sweet Potato Roll
Below are pictures of menus from both restaurants:
What Do Customers Think About Kosher Japanese food in America?
Customers of kosher Japanese restaurants are usually very satisfied with the food. One Jewish customer, who travels to Japan frequently, says he actually prefers the Japanese styled food of a kosher restaurant in New York than he does the authentic food in Japan. He explained that Americans are not used to many of the things that Japanese eat. A truly authentic kosher Japanese restaurant may not be as successful if it were to serve exactly what is served in Japan. He finds the Japanese food in New York to be geared towards the liking of Americans and incredibly tasteful!
What does a Japanese chef think about Kosher Japanese food?
The executive chef of Sushi Metsuyan, Casey Colaneri, who is a Japanese immigrant, explained that preparing food for a kosher restaurant is much different than a non-Kosher restaurant. He has worked for both types of Japanese restaurants and his experiences have been really different. Since he was accustomed to cooking with many of the ingredients that Jews cannot eat, he has had to adapt to new cooking methods. However, he really enjoys working for a kosher restaurant, as he is able to create many different types of foods that traditional Japanese restaurants do not serve. For example, he created many of the specialty rolls on Sushi Metsuyan’s menu. He has had the opportunity to play around with the foods that Jews can eat and adapt Japanese-styled food to their liking. Casey explained that in Japan you would never see many of the items that are on Sushi Metsuyan’s menu, but the restaurant is extremely successful regardless because of the adaptation of Japanese cuisine to kosher preferences.