Monday, December 5, 2011

Kosher Kimchi

I have noticed a recurring meme on the internet recently of people searching for kosher kimchi (or sometimes kosher kimchee or kosher kim chee), or asking the question, "Is kimchi kosher?" or "Where to buy kosher kimchi?"

Since numerous studies have been completed (see here and here) showing the many health benefits of kimchi, it will be important for the kosher-keeping public to be aware of the kosher issues regarding kimchi as they desire to have access to it. I want to address these issues in this post.

What is Kimchi?
Kimchi is a traditional Korean pickle made through the same process of lacto-fermentation which is used for sauerkraut, beet kvass, and other traditional cultured vegetable dishes.

The minimum legal definition of kimchi, according to the international organization Codex Alimentarius, is a salt-fermented cabbage product processed with red pepper powder, garlic, ginger, and onion (see the full legal definition here (opens as a PDF)). Many commercial variations exist.

Whether or not it is kosher depends on the particular recipe.

Some of the common ingredients you'll find in commercial kimchi are cabbage (Napa cabbage is most common), daikon radish, chili powder or hot peppers, garlic, ginger, and onions.

In some recipes, you will also find shrimp, squid, or other patently non-kosher ingredients, rendering the dish completely non-kosher. Other recipes include vinegar or "fish sauce" which are suspect without proper kosher supervision. Some companies use laboratory-produced strains of cultures to ferment their product, which is also suspect without kosher supervision. Other recipes include sugar (regarding which I wonder: why ruin such a healthy food with sugar?) or soy sauce.

If It's Vegan, is It Kosher?
These days, you will find many vegan versions of kimchi. There are two main issues with these vegan versions:

1) Whether the producers followed proper protocol for checking the vegetables for tolaim.
2) Whether kosher knives/cutting boards were used, and in particular for the "sharp" ingredients like ginger, garlic, radish, and onion.

Without supervision by someone well-versed in these kosher protocols, it is anyone's guess to what extent even a vegan kimchi is "kosher."

Are There Any Certified Kosher Kimchis?
That being said, there is at least one kosher kimchi on the market right now available from Brassica and Brine (it's called Kimchi Karma). It's available in Los Angeles and retails for $10 a jar, which is 20%-30% less than what you'll find in stores like Whole Foods for comparable organic, small-batch kimchis (which are not certified kosher) and it's delicious. The company is certified by KSA. If you live in the area and are hankering for some kosher kimchi, go check it out.

Make Your Own Kimchi
Another option is to make your own kimchi at home. For recipes and fermentation tips, I highly recommend the book Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz which you can either check out from your local library or purchase for long-term use (which you won't regret, if you love traditional fermented foods).

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Shehechianu on New Fruits

"On the second night [of Rosh Hashana] the new fruit should be eaten [immediately after Kiddush and] before the washing of hands for the meal." Kaploun, Uri (Ed.). (1994) Sefer HaMinhagim (English). Brooklyn, NY: Kehot Publication Society, p. 118.

On Rosh Hashana this year I was surprised to hear the rabbi instructing people that, as a rule, we don't say shehechianu on adamah produce (which would exclude strawberries, watermelon, and cantaloupe, to name a few). This instruction troubled me so much that I took out the Shulchan Aruch HaRav and showed the rabbi the section on shehechianu in Seder Birchos haNehenin (11:12) where it says : "[H]e should bless 'shehechianu' first and afterwards 'borei pri ha etz' or 'borei pri ha adamah' etc"*. I showed the rabbi and asked him if he knew a source other than Shulchan Aruch that said you can't say shehechianu on adamah produce. He told me that he was mistaken and then announced that he had been mistaken.

A similar situation happened again just last week. A friend of mine questioned me when I made a shehechianu on Jerusalem artichokes, which are potato-like tubers in the sunflower family, whose harvest season just began (which I was very excited about!). He was doubtful whether you can say shehechianu on adamah produce.

Now, it seems to me that
the idea that "we don't say shehechianu on adamah produce" shows a vast disparity between one way of seeing the world, and the way Chazal expect us to see the world. It shows me how far we are removed from intimacy with our sources of food, and, in some ways, from intimacy with the Source of Life.

Why is it such a big deal?
Shehechianu on seasonal foods grown from the earth was instituted as an expression of the immense joy and gratitude a person feels after going six months, nine months, or maybe even eleven months without enjoying a certain food, and now it has grown back, and he's so excited that he must use shem u'malchus to thank G-d for it ("A person is obligated to bless [shehechianu] for every joy of the heart which comes at infrequent intervals to him from the good of this world." Luach Birchos Hanehenin, (11:1)). Why is there an assumption that I'm allowed to be joyous and thankful for a bland, imported dragon fruit on Rosh Hashana, but not on a sweet, flavorful Junebearer strawberry in June?

The idea of saying "Blessed are You... Who kept us alive, and sustained us, and caused us to arrive to this very time" is meant to be an outburst of excitement, of joy, of gratitude. It's the opposite of rote, of the status quo.

Chazal expected us to be so excited, they established the saying of shehechianu upon SEEING a new item of produce in its season ("One who sees a new item of produce that recurs from year to year, or even twice in a year, and he delights in seeing it, he blesses shehechianu even if he sees it in his friend's hand or on a tree; and if he doesn't delight in seeing it, then he doesn't bless until he eats it" (ibid 11:2)). The fact that we say it when tasting the fruit is only an extension of that principle, which is why the Alte Rebbe paskins that, if you are about to eat this new item, you say shehechianu before the bp"e or bp"a (Seder Birchos HaNehenin 11:12).

Can you imagine that? Can you imagine feeling so excited by the absence for nine months of tomatoes or watermelon (both adamah) that when you see the first ripe one, you burst out with gratefulness to G-d for bringing you to this moment in time?

Even more telling, is you can say shehechianu on different VARIETIES of the same species, even if they taste the same but look different. ("A type of produce that has many varieties, you bless shehechianu on each variety" ibid. 11:14) An example: If you already said shehechianu on granny smith apples but not winesaps, you may say it on the winesaps.

Foods associated with the changes of the year are so central to the Jewish understanding of time, that our seasons are named after the foods which are harvested during each season. Cases in point: Aviv, spring, literally means "ears of barley;" it is the time of the barley harvest.
Kayitz, summer, according to Rashi is the name of ripe figs gathered for drying during the summer months (Breishis 8:22). Choref, fall-winter, according to Rashi, is named for the barley and legumes which are planted during that time "hacharifin lehisbashel maher" ("which are quick to ripen in a short time") (ibid.).

Now, what I'm saying here is not innovative. Lehavdil, it's like Ruth Stout's crusade for mulch and the no-till method of gardening. She didn't invent mulching, but she showed how such a simple method could have such vast effects in a garden. She took a really prosaic idea and showed how it is a foundation of sustainable gardening.

So here, everything I'm saying is printed very clearly in Shulchan Aruch, it's not a secret or even a diyuk on my part. But living with the seasons and having the awareness that G-d designated different foods for different times of the year, and rejoicing with those seasons and rejoicing in the diversity of that produce, that is the way a Yid is supposed to see the world.

That is the foundation of sustainable Torah ("Im ein kemach, ein Torah. Im ein Torah, ein kemach (Pikei Avos 3:21)," and--notice how the kemach comes first--wheat is an adamah species mentioned explicitly as requiring shehechianu when it is new in season ("If the new season's produce is easily recognizable by its taste and also by its appearance, we bless shehechianu on it, for example ha'rifos (bulgur) which they make from new grains which are easily recognizable as new by sight and also by their taste that they are better ("she'hu le'shevach") (Luach Birchos HaNehenin 11:5).

Now, all that being said, the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch does mention (59:17) that "We have the custom that we don't bless shehechianu on yerakos and types of turnips [presumably including other types of root crops] since they remain for a long time [in storage] through burying them in soil and sand, and they're also available, and also there's not so much joy associated with them." That could be the source for people mistakenly assuming that we don't make shehechianu on any adamah produce even though it is clear from the sources above that there is no innate distinction between etz produce and adamah produce with regard to shehechianu. Additionally, we have an explicit instruction from the Lubavitcher Rebbe zt"l who wrote that, "By us, it is our custom to bless shehechianu also on yerek." (Sefer Hasichos 5749 p. 754)

*All translations in this post are my own, adapted for readability.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Honey on Rosh Hashanah

*A version of this article also appears in the High Holidays issue of SoulWise Magazine.

On Rosh Hashanah we eat many symbolic foods. The most salient is honey—we eat honey cake, we dip challah in honey, and we dip apples in honey with the request, “May it be Your will to renew a good and sweet year for us.”

The custom of eating symbolic foods on Rosh Hashanah comes from the Talmud: “Abaye said '[A]t the beginning of each year, you should accustom yourself to eat gourds, fenugreek, leeks, beets, and dates...',” each of which symbolizes something good for the coming year.

But why honey? Why not cane sugar, high fructose corn syrup, or agave syrup? Firstly, because those sweeteners were unavailable or hadn't been invented yet when the custom came about. On a wellness level, honey has antioxidant and antibiotic properties which the others lack. As long as we're asking Hashem for health and wellness, we might as well do our part.

On a deeper level, the Talmud teaches that honey is 1/60th of the mann which sustained our ancestors in the midbar. This comparison is no accident—it is to remind us on Rosh Hashanah that, like the mann, all of our material “sweetness” comes from G-d.

Even more than it is a symbol, honey is truly a special gift from G-d that many take for granted.

Bees make honey by fermenting flower nectar. On average, bees collect nectar from 10 million flowers to produce a little over four cups of honey. To visit those millions of flowers takes 10,000 hours of combined flight, or over 37,000 miles of travel. And bees don't just make honey. They also make propolis, royal jelly, and beeswax. Just over two pounds of beeswax represents the energy from over 15 pounds of honey.

The elegant alchemy achieved through this chain of events is baffling, mirroring the mystical concept of seder hishtolshelus by which our reality exists.

Plants catch the sun's light (beaming from about 93 million miles away) and convert that energy into nectar. The bees collect that nectar on the brightest days of the year and carry it into the dark depths of their hives where part of it is converted into beeswax. That wax is then harvested by the beekeeper and made into candles, which are then used to illuminate the darkest of our nights (there is a minhag to use a beeswax candle to light the Chanukah menorah).

Despite their historical role, the bees are dying. In the last ten years, up to 80 percent of commercial beehives in affected areas have been lost to Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). Factors contributing to CCD include exposure to pesticides, mites, and pollution. Almost 90% of wild honeybees have been lost since 1990 due to urban sprawl and destruction of natural honeybee habitat.

Bees do not only provide honey. They also pollinate over two-thirds of our crops which need pollination, including apples, tomatoes, almonds, and cucumbers. If we don't change the destiny of the honeybee soon, we're going to lose more than just honey.

As we dip our apples into honey and pray for a sweet year, let’s be aware that each of us CAN make a difference to ensure that there will be honeybees (and honey, and fruits and vegetables) for future generations. Here are a few simple tips:

*Plant bee-friendly plants in your yard

*Don't use chemicals and pesticides around your home

*If a colony of bees moves onto your property, call a bee rescue hotline rather than an exterminator

*Buy local, raw honey

*Buy local, organic produce

*And you can even become an organic beekeeper yourself!

Monday, July 11, 2011

City Prosecutes Family for Growing Vegetables

Eshes chayil mi yimtza?

A frum family in Oak Park, MI is being persecuted by their city government for planting a vegetable garden in their front yard.

They have set up a blog at and a Facebook group titled Oak Park Hates Veggies.

The poem Eshes Chayil (from Mishlei) comes to mind because one of the themes of Eshes Chayil is that a woman is praised who knows how to appraise a field for agriculture and knows how to produce the finest food from it. In this case, the matriarch of the Oak Park family, Julie Bass, decided to put in a vegetable garden after her front yard was destroyed after some sewage work.

To take a step back for a moment, am I wrong in my understanding that every Shabbos, when we sing Eshes Chayil, we are not indeed praising women and encouraging them to embody these praises ("She considers a field and buys it; from her earnings she plants a vineyard")? I know it is also a metaphor, but Torah never leaves the p'shat.

There is a common thread here and in Koheles 5:8 where Shlomo Hamelech judges just about every earthly pursuit to be vanity and futility, except, he writes, "The advantage of land is supreme; even a king is indebted to the soil," by which he means that agriculture is one of the highest pursuits since every person, even a king, cannot survive without food.

Even though one of the greatest kings and thinkers of world history (as well as, lehavdil, many, many other great thinkers) thought that agriculture is one of the highest pursuits, it has largely fallen out of favor among frum Jews (and many in Western society) in favor of more rarefied pursuits like lawyering and accounting, or any other job which involves as little physical labor as possible and as much income as possible, without regard to whether or not said pursuit benefits humanity. Not that lawyering is bad, but a Jewish mother should be just as proud to say that her son became an organic farmer as to say he became a lawyer. But I digress.

The Oak Park city officials have used lies and deception to try to win their case, while Ms. Bass has made every effort to be a good and honest citizen. The very fact that a city would persecute a family for growing food in their yard rather than resource-hogging, useless grass or ornamental shrubs is madness.

It is very heartening for me to see a frum family fighting to grow food in their front yard and I wish the Bass family hatzlacha rabba in fighting the city of Oak Park. I hope that they will be an inspiration to frum yidden all over the world and to people in suburbs across the United States.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Fermentation and Pesach

*This article also appears in the Pesach issue of SoulWise Magazine.

Pesach is the one holiday on which Jews are required to become obsessed with food. This is actually a unique opportunity, since as modern Americans we usually do not have to think about where our food comes from or the far-reaching effects of our food choices. For instance, when I buy a hamburger, I don’t think about how the grain which fed the cow was grown on a vast monoculture farm using synthetic fertilizers. I don’t dwell on how the runoff from these fertilizers and the waste from the cow farm are creating an oceanic dead zone the size of New Jersey off the coast of Texas ( I don’t even want to think about how my hamburger bun is made from those same grains. In short, most of us don’t usually analyze our food choices.

Which brings us back to Pesach.

On Pesach we are commanded not to eat any leavened bread or even to own any leaven (Shemos 12:15). Some people don’t eat any processed food during Pesach for fear that a small amount of leaven might have inadvertently entered the food production process.

But what is leaven exactly? The leaven of Pesach is yesteryear’s yeast, or as Henry David Thoreau described it in Walden, “[T]he soul of bread, the spiritus which fills its cellular tissue.” (Thoreau, Henry David. Walden and Civil Disobedience, Harper and Row 1965, p. 46) More accurately, leaven is yeast and bacteria in the form of a wet, bubbly mixture of flour and water used to make traditional leavened bread, or what we today refer to as sourdough. Coincidentally, the ancient Hebrew word for leaven is “se’or,” which sounds very similar to the word “sour.”

However, it is interesting that the yeast which ferments dough into leavened bread is basically the same yeast that turns grape juice into wine. Yet leavened bread is forbidden during Pesach, while fermented grape juice (i.e. wine) is an essential element of the Pesach Seder. (Indeed, the consequence of eating leavened bread during Pesach is kares, while drinking fermented grape juice at the Seder is a mitzvah d'rabanan.)

As an avid fermentation hobbyist, having a deeper understanding of bread and wine helps me understand this difference. Leaven is constantly bubbling as the yeast within it metabolizes the simple sugars in the mixture into carbon dioxide. Bread dough holds in these bubbles, and this is what causes bread to rise. On Pesach, we approach this air-filled bread as a metaphor for our own egos, while the flat matzah represents humility. There is a well-known phrase from the opening of Koheles: “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” (1:2) In Hebrew, the word for vanity (hevel) also means breath or breeze, emphasizing the connection between vanity and airiness. On Passover, we try to rid ourselves completely of any self-serving ego.

On the other hand, the winemaking process is a process of refinement. Yeast produces carbon dioxide bubbles during the wine fermentation process as well, but those bubbles escape. What remains is a cultured drink, much more complex and refined than the original grape juice. For this reason, our sages teach that the four glasses of wine we drink at the Pesach Seder are in memory of the four phrases of redemption that G-d used when taking us out of Egypt. Out of these four phrases, wine is especially connected to the fourth when G-d said, “I will take you to Me as a People.” The fulfillment of this level of redemption only came about at the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, an event for which we had to prepare and refine ourselves.

Paradoxically, the same yeast affects both the bread and the wine, but engenders a totally different change. And perhaps this is the message. Our sages teach that we have a powerful energy within us, which naturally pushes us in the direction it wishes to go. If we feed into it, we end up with a bloated ego. If, on the other hand, we use this energy for our own self-refinement, we develop fine character traits and we merit that the Torah should be given to each one of us personally.

This message is fitting when we look deeper into the role of leavened bread and the chagim.

If bread is bad and represents an inflated ego, why does the Torah require two loaves of leavened bread to be offered in the Bais Hamikdash on Shavuos – only 50 days after Pesach? Because Shavuos commemorates the giving of the Torah, which corresponds to the fourth phrase of redemption, “I will take you to Me as a People.” On Shavuos, the bread is synonymous with self-refinement to the point that even the ego itself has been refined and is now used for holiness.

This Pesach, may we experience our own personal redemption from any and all parts of ourselves, especially from those negative emotions which hold us back from achieving our full potential. May our personal redemption lead to the full and final collective redemption of our people with the coming of Moshiach very soon.