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Jewish Food Practices

Kosher or Kashrut laws


One of the deepest beliefs in traditional Jewish dietary practice is that food consumption and food handling be done according to religious laws. The term kosher, (in Hebrew -kasher) means "ritually correct."

Most dietray laws find their origin in the Bible. These laws have governed Jewish cooking, no matter whatthe country of residence.  While the produce and available ingredients vary from country to country and Jewish food adapts with it, the basic rules for keeping Kosher are upheld scrupulously.

Of the "beasts of the earth" (basically mammals with the exception of rodents), you may eat any animal that has cloven hooves and chews its cud. Any land mammal that does not have both of these qualities is forbidden. Sheep, cattle, goats and deer are kosher.

Of the animals that may be eaten, the birds and mammals must be killed in accordance with Jewish law. All blood must be drained from the meat or broiled out of it before it is eaten. Certain parts of permitted animals may not be eaten.

The flesh of birds and mammals cannot be eaten with dairy. Fish, eggs, fruits, vegetables and grains can be eaten with either meat or dairy. (According to some views, fish may not be eaten with meat).

Utensils that have come into contact with meat may not be used with dairy, and vice versa. Utensils that have come into contact with non-kosher food may not be used with kosher food. This applies only where the contact occurred while the food was hot.

Grape products made by non-Jews may not be eaten.

Anything in the water that has fins and scales is acceptable. This therefore excludes shellfish such as lobsters, oysters, shrimp, clams and crabs, all of which are forbidden.

For birds, the criteria is less clear. The "Torah" lists forbidden birds without specifying why they are forbidden. All of the birds on the list are birds of prey or scavengers, thus the rabbis inferred that this was the basis for the distinction. Other birds are permitted, such as chicken, geese, ducks and turkeys.

Rodents, reptiles, amphibians, and insects are all forbidden.

Some authorities require a post-mortem examination of the lungs of cattle, to determine whether the lungs are free from adhesions. If the lungs are free from such adhesions, the animal is deemed "glatt" (that is, "smooth"). In certain circumstances, an animal can be kosher without being glatt; however, the stringency of keeping "glatt kosher" has become increasingly common in recent years.

As mentioned above, any product derived from these forbidden animals, such as their milk, eggs, fat, or organs, also cannot be eaten. Rennet, an enzyme used to harden cheese, is often obtained from non-kosher animals, thus kosher hard cheese can be difficult to find.

In regard to meat, all blood must be drained before the meat is cooked and eaten, because blood, which gives life, is sacred to God. In temple services, blood was offered on the altar separately from the rest of the sacrificed animal, and only meat without blood could be eaten by the priests and sharers in the sacred meal (see Lev. 17). This rule also ensured that animals that had died in the field or were killed by larger animals carcasses that might be unsafe to eat could not be consumed (see Exod. 22:31). In practice, there are very specific methods of kosher slaughter, inspection, and preservation.

For religious Jews, meat and dairy products may not be mixed or eaten together at the same meal. This also means that a household that keeps kosher must maintain separate sets of cooking implements, pans, dishes, and utensils one for meat and one for dairy products. Some households even have separate sinks. These practices derive from a rule of uncertain origin that forbids the cooking of a baby goat or lamb in its mother’s milk (Exod. 34:26). It is possible the practice was forbidden for being cruel: some fetal animals, cut from the womb before birth, were considered tender delicacies. The practice of cooking a kid in its mother’s milk may also have been associated with non-Hebrew religious practice and therefore forbidden.

These are the laws that govern Jewish cooking. To understand how an Italian dish, risotto, for example, might be cooked, we need to understand the rules of Kosher cooking. Risotto to a Christian Italian might be made with a meat stock, vegetables, then sprinkled with cheese. This combination, being forbidden to Jews, would be simplified by eliminating either the meat stock or the cheese. The choice would be up to the cook.




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