The Seattle area is home to few kosher eateries, and the reason is numbers, says Rabbi Yitzchok Gallor, a kosher inspector for Va’ad HaRabanim (Board of Rabbis) of Greater Seattle, the regional kosher-certification agency.
“The problem with restaurants and kosher is that the local Jewish community is not yet big enough to support many restaurants,” Gallor explained in a recent telephone interview. Kosher establishments operated by Shabbat-observant Jews have to close their doors from sundown on Fridays to sundown on Saturdays — prime dining-out time for the general public, he pointed out. The rest of the week, such businesses would have to depend on their Jewish clientele to make up for Sabbath closings. And Seattle is not exactly a Jewish town….
But the Emerald City is known for its Asian presence, and two Asian restaurants have been gracious enough (“bent over backwards,” it has been said) to accommodate diners’ kosher dietary requirements. What’s more, two Asian seafood markets now sell kosher fish and a local firm produces kosher fortune cookies and Chinese noodles.
Bamboo Garden, near Seattle Center, was the first area restaurant of any kind to receive kosher certification, in 1994. At the time, Gallor said, there was a search for a restaurant that would be easy to kosher; Bamboo Gardens, which served vegetarian Chinese cuisine, was proposed, and owner Victor Yeung proved highly amenable.
“They pride themselves on being a friend of the Jewish community,” declared Gallor, who visits Bamboo Garden daily to ensure kashrut compliance.
According to David Grashin, executive director of the Va’ad, a half-dozen local Jewish residents bought new plates and dishes for Bamboo Garden when certification was awarded; Yeung reciprocated by giving them credit for meals.
“Victor is an incredibly wonderful, sweet person who, I can truly say, does this not just for the money: He really looks at himself as providing a service to the community,” Grashin stated. “And I can tell you, without reservation, that when people come and it’s five minutes to ten — and he closes at ten o’clock — and he sees they have a yarmulke, or he knows they’re vegetarians and can’t really eat anywhere else, he’ll stay open.
“That, certainly back then, was unparalleled,” he added.
Reached by telephone, Yeung said only that the fact that his restaurant serves vegetarian Chinese fare made the certification process “easy.”
Rabbi Gallor elaborated: “A vegetarian meal is intrinsically kosher, because vegetables are kosher. It’s just the equipment and a couple of the more processed ingredients — maybe some oils and stuff — that may be problematic, but other than that, it’s basically kosher.” While a restaurant serving meat would require a supervising rabbi on site all the time, he termed Bamboo Garden “low-sensitive.” Otherwise, the only concerns, he indicated, are “the possibility of going to Safeway and picking up something when they run out” and being certain that the vegetables are free of bugs.
“The interesting thing about Bamboo Garden is that they’re Buddhists, and in their religion they consider bugs to be meat,” Gallor noted. “In the Jewish religion, it’s bugs are not kosher. They’re vegetarians, so they’re very careful to check the vegetables and make sure they don’t have any bugs.”
Teapot Vegetarian House is Seattle’s other kosher dining venue, offering vegan Chinese and Thai dishes. It is inspected daily by Rabbi Chaim Tatel on behalf of the Va’ad. The vegan menu, Tatel observed, simplifies kosher supervision, but the use of ingredients from overseas “makes my life interesting, because I’ve got to check out [products from] Thailand and other places.”
Edward Tan, whose family owns Teapot, recounted how local Jewish doctors and nurses suggested that his restaurant become certified kosher, a process that ultimately took about six weeks. “We had to close the restaurant down for two days; we had to change all the china and the glasses and…gave the whole restaurant a thorough cleaning,” he recounted. “We were very motivated, and they were motivated, to turn it into a kosher restaurant,” which necessitated major changes in the menu and the substitution of ingredients.
Asked if acquiring certification was, in the end, a good idea, Tan answered, “Yes, absolutely. People think it’s a very positive thing. Some people don’t know what kosher is, but they know it has something to do with cleanliness.” He also said his customers included “a very big following of Seventh-Day Adventists,” who also adhere to Old Testament dietary laws.
Rabbi Tatel also certifies the fish sections of Mutual Fish Co. and Uwajimaya’s Seattle store. On the question of koshering fish — which is pareve (non-meat and non-dairy) and may be eaten at any meal, although not simultaneously with meat — Tatel explained: “Well, fish is cold. Kashrut issues come up mostly when there’s some kind of heat transfer: When you’re cooking, then the contaminants get into the metal — the stove and pots and pans and all that stuff. When you’ve got cold fish, it’s much easier to deal with.”
Tatel said that certification usually requires that a fish market buy new knives and a new cutting board, which must be separate from the board where non-kosher seafood is cut. A separate hose and bucket are also needed to keep the fish from touching a sink where hot water is used. “Once you get the heat, you’ve got the transfer of contaminants,” he said. Tatel said he inspects the fish markets once a month.
In providing kosher certification, organizations like the Va’ad act as agents for the consumer, Tatel explained: “There are so many products and companies in the world producing kosher food that it is impossible for each of us to make our own inspections. So we have agencies who perform this service for us. The mashgiach (kosher inspector) is concerned about the kashrut of three things: ingredients, processes, and equipment. All three must meet kosher standards.”
“We had a lot of Jewish [customers], a lot of them were kosher, and prior to even the Va’ad doing it, we were asked by Jewish people to do things in a kosher style, where you put the paper down,” in addition to using new knives approved by a local rabbi, said Harry Yoshimura, manager of Mutual Fish Co., which his father, Dick, founded in the mid-1940’s.
Although the number of Jewish customers “kind of remained the same” after certification, which added an expense that could not be passed on to customers, Yoshimura said that “I like to maintain the ethnic tradition that we’ve had for years and years. We have a lot of Jewish friends: It’s kind of like a favor.”
The seafood department at Uwajimaya, Seattle’s preeminent Asian supermarket, applied to the Va’ad for certification about six months ago and received the designation in November, according Ken Hewitt, who manages the department with his brother Dave. “I understand there’s a big need for kosher fish, so I brought it up before Uwajimaya management, and told them I’d like to be certified, and they agreed…” said Hewitt, who described how he and his brother were given a free hand to build up the department after being hired last May.
“It’s a great program: Everybody’s really liked it, and the clientele’s really building now,” he noted.
Hewitt said that the Uwajimaya seafood department fillets most of its fish on the premises and now offers kosher-cut salmon, trout, halibut, rockfish, and tuna; they slice sashimi to order and do grinding at no extra charge. Neither of Uwajimaya’s other stores (in Bellevue and Beaverton, Oregon) sells fish as kosher.
Henry Louie, secretary/treasurer of Tsue Chong Co., maker of Rose Noodles and fortune cookies, said he sought Va’ad certification seven years ago “because we wanted to cover all different ethnic groups.” Louie related how he elected to have his business certified in the mid-1990’s after Jewish friends and neighbors suggested expanding his market. The process took only a week: “We just used kosher ingredients in our noodles and had Rabbi Tatel in” to supervise the koshering of equipment.
All of Tsue Chong Co.’s noodles are pareve except for its rice noodles, which are non-kosher; its fortune cookies are dairy. Louie said he receives orders from Jewish customers from as far away as New Jersey.
In contrast to the restaurant business, “on the wholesale level, it’s a whole different ball game,” said Rabbi Gallor. “They don’t have to rely on people walking in: They can ship all around the country.”
The Web site of Va’ad HaRabanim of Greater Seattle is www.vaad.net.