Keeping Kosher In Muslim Istanbul

Before I lived in Turkey, I thought roasted chestnuts just existed in old Christmas carols. In Istanbul, they are sold on many street corners, priced by the gram and varying in quality. They have also been a major form of sustenance for several of my houseguests. My friend with a gluten allergy bought a bag of them nightly, saying they were the closest food to bread she could still eat. They also became a mainstay for a recent guest with the most challenging dietary restriction yet: eating an all-kosher diet in a mostly Muslim country.

Our friend decided at the last minute to fly in from Israel to spend a long weekend in Istanbul. I was almost glad for the short warning, as it gave me less time to worry and wonder. Is halal the same as kosher? If you have to ask, the diets have some things in common (i.e. no pork), but they are about as compatible as their respective religions. Would he be able to even eat anything from our very non-kosher kitchen, freshly stocked with pork products from Greece? Stock up on disposable plates to serve vegetarian dishes, and you’re golden. What could we do during the Saturday Sabbath, when using electricity or exchanging money is forbidden? Wandering is a good activity, one that is well suited to this city.Turning to the trusty Google for kosher Istanbul ideas, I came up with mostly outdated listings for restaurants that have since closed and odd suggestions like trying to get into the Jewish home for the aged near the Galata tower. Though Istanbul is home to nearly 20,000 Jews, they apparently aren’t dining out much. The single kosher restaurant we found open to the public is Levi’s in Eminönü, a few steps from the Spice Market. Accessed through an old and rather decrepit han (a large commercial building), it has excellent views of the Golden Horn and a decor that hasn’t been updated in several decades. Levi’s serves standard Turkish food: grilled meats, kofte meatballs, salads and such, all certified kosher. I was likely the first foreign shiksa to dine there in some time, and like all Turkish establishments, they fussed and fawned over my baby and offered her sweets.

When it came time for the Friday night Sabbath and services, I had an edge in knowing a nearby synagogue in Şişli, as I used to live across the street. After the 2003 bombings, most of the city’s synagogues are heavily guarded by local police and accessible only with prior permission and identification. Unfortunately, our friend only learned he’d need his Israeli passport once he got there, and as one can’t carry anything during the Sabbath, he had no identification or way to contact us to bring it. He went instead just to Shabbat dinner at a local rabbi’s house, climbing the stairs back to our apartment in total darkness.

On Saturday, I walked him back to the rabbi’s for lunch, and when Google Maps failed to find the house number, my friend’s yamulke and tallit helped us find our way. As soon as some Turkish men spotted my friend, they escorted us to the rabbi’s house; evidently they’ve learned how to identify a Jewish visitor! At lunch, our friend met a few other Jewish travelers who found themselves in Istanbul for various reasons, who reported that they had to pretend they had forgotten their hotel room keys as they couldn’t operate the electronic key cards during the Sabbath. They had all found the rabbi through the Chabad-Lubavitch organization (you may have seen their mitzvah tanks in New York City), which connects Jews around the world, and found community even in a primarily Muslim city.

As we broke the Sabbath that night at a rooftop bar with a couple of Efes beers (most non-grape based alcohols are kosher, so beer is fine), I apologized for our non-kosher friendly city, but our friend declared one Istanbul one of his all-time favorite cities. Despite a diet of mostly fruit and vegetables, chestnuts and whatever random snack products available at the supermarket with the kosher symbol, he had gotten a taste of Turkey without a single kebab.

Levi’s Kosher restaurant is open weekdays for lunch only. Tahmis Kalçın Sokak, Çavuşbaşı Han 23/10, near Hamdi Restaurant in Eminönü. Find more info on the Turkish Jewish community here and here.

EasyJet apologizes for bacon and ham sandwich kosher meal on Tel Aviv route

In a massive case of cultural insensitivity, London Luton based EasyJet has been forced to issue an apology to its Jewish customers on the LondonTel Aviv route.

On a recent flight,the available dinner options were bacon baguettes and ham melts. Needless to say, this did not go down too well with its passengers.

Accountant Victor Kaufman says he couldn’t beleive his ears when he heard the options – and wrote a complaint letter to the airline after his flight.

When EasyJet launched their new Tel Aviv route, they had advertised a full range of kosher meals on their planes, offering dishes like salmon bagels and egg and tomato sandwiches. Their policy prohibits the catering company from loading any pork products on the plane. Obviously, in this specific event, someone messed up.

According to EasyJet, the wrong catering carts had been loaded, and they issued an apology for the screw up. As usual, they say they’ll do everything they can to prevent this from happening in the future.

Use an “I can’t eat this” card – Dining out tip

Before you go out of the country, make a few wallet-sized cards that list what you can and can’t eat in the native language(s) of the country you’re visiting.

I like to list what I’m able to eat on one side of the card… and list the foods I can’t have on the other. This makes it so the server and kitchen can’t easily mix them up.

This is especially helpful for vegetarian and vegans, people with religious dietary restrictions, and people with food allergies.

Excuse me, are you Jewish? The ethics of ordering a special meal on plane

I frequently order special meals on planes. Why, you ask? They are usually much better than the standard in-flight fare you get.

I am neither a vegetarian nor a practicing Jew, yet I order vegetarian, kosher, low-sodium, or any other alternative I get, rather than ordering the standard salt-packed meal. I never thought twice about it.

My sister’s recent experience changed that.

For her recent Czech Air flight from Prague to New York, my sister ordered a kosher meal. When distributing meals, the flight attendant came over and asked her:
“Excuse me, did you order a kosher meal?”
“Are you Jewish?” the attendant asked.
“Why do you ask?” she replied.
“Well random people sometimes order kosher out of curiosity and then they don’t like it.”

I don’t know about you, but this strikes me as incredibly rude. Asking a customer what religion they are in front of a plane load of people? I don’t think so.

It got me thinking though. Do airlines frown upon people ordering special meals just out of curiosity? Is it ethical to order kosher even if you are not Jewish? I, personally, don’t think so. If it’s offered, it’s fair game.

Perhaps Heather, Gadling’s own galley expert, could help us out here?