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Kosher foods while traveling

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Kashrut is a term that refers to the dietary laws mandated in the Jewish religion. Food that complies with these laws is referred to as "kosher." Observant Jews generally follow the laws of kashrut to varying degrees. Additionally, some other people like to eat kosher food because they view it as pure.

As Jewish people vary in their levels of observance, some will eat kosher food 100% of the time, some eat kosher food while at home, but are willing to bend the rules while away, and some do not eat a kosher diet at all. For those who will always eat kosher, this article discusses the challenges and solutions in obtaining kosher food away from home.

Understanding kashrut

The laws of kashrut originate from the Torah (Old Testament). There are several Biblical verses that prescribe what types of food can and cannot be eaten. Biblical scholars have interpreted these verses to form the modern set of laws known as kashrut.

The basic laws are:

  • Only mammals that chew their cud and have split hooves can be eaten
  • 24 bird species are Biblically prohibited. However, scholars have determined that only 5 types of bird can be eaten.
  • Mammals and birds must be slaughtered in a prescribed ritual known as shechita, blood must be removed, and certain parts of the animal cannot be eaten
  • Only fish with fins and scales can be eaten. This excludes all shellfish, catfish, and sharks.
  • Meat and poultry cannot be eaten with dairy foods
  • Wine and grape juice must be produced by a Jew in order to be kosher

Though a relatively small number of Biblical laws regular the Jewish diet, kashrut in modern life is nevertheless quite complicated due to the complexity of modern day food preparation. Commercial processed foods contain numerous additives and other ingredients that pose kashrut issues. Frequently, it is not possible to identify these issues simply by reading the ingredients. Many food are processed on factory equipment that is also used for non-kosher foods, and that alone can render the food non-kosher.

A common myth is that food that is kosher has been "blessed by a rabbi." There is no truth to this myth, and rabbis give no blessings in the process of certifying food as kosher.

Identifying kosher foods

Those who practice the laws of kashrut know how to identify a food as being kosher or not. 

All fruits, vegetables, and other foods growing from the ground are inherently kosher.

Most processed foods though, including those made from fruits and vegetables, require kashrut certification. This is because many processed foods contain additives derived from non-kosher sources, and it is not always possible to determine kashrut simply from reading the ingredients. Additionally, many foods are processed on the same equipment as non-kosher foods.

The most common and recognized kosher symbol is the OU (Orthodox Union), which is found on thousands of products sold in North America and other parts of the world. There are dozens of other symbols. Not all kosher consumers consider all of them reliable.



Hechsher

A hechsher is the certification of a product or establishment that shows that it is kosher. The hechsher is offered by a kashrut certifying agency, which sends a mashgiach (kosher supervisor) to the location where the food is manufactured to observe the manufacturing process and determine if the food meets the standards of kashrut.

Each hechsher has a unique symbol. On processed food products, this symbol is generally printed somewhere on the packaging, unusually conspicuously enough for the consumer to notice. On a restaurant or other similar establishment, it'll usually be printed either on the door or inside the establishment in an area where the customer can see it easily, or is kept behind the scenes, but will be displayed to any customer upon request.

Not every hechsher is trusted by every Jewish person. Some are not considered to be reliable by some consumers. This is up to the discretion of each person.

Often, a hechsher is followed by the letter D, standing for the word "dairy," indicating dairy ingredients, the letters DE indicating that there are no dairy ingredients, but the product was produced on dairy equipment, and cannot be consumed on meat or on one's meat dishes, the word MEAT or letter M for meat ingredients (but this is often omitted for obvious meat products), the word PAREVE for products containing no dairy or meat, or the letter P (not to be confused with pareve) for products that are kosher for passover

Where to find kosher food

In a city with a large Jewish community, kosher food is pretty easy to find. Such cities typically have one or more kosher stores and/or restaurants where such food can be obtained. Additionally, within the part of town where the Jewish people live, and often elsewhere in town, common supermarkets will carry some specially kosher products. 

Even outside of a Jewish community, in the United States, Canada, and many other countries, it is possible to find at least food in supermarkets and convenience stores with kosher certification, though this food may require some preparation in order to be eaten.

While Israel is the Jewish state, not all food in Israel is kosher, and kosher consumers must still examine and restaurant and every food product sold to determine if it is kosher.

Kosher restaurants

Most restaurants anywhere are not kosher. But kosher restaurants do exist where Jewish people live in numbers large enough to support one.

There are several websites and smartphone apps that can help locate kosher restaurants, including shamash.org, Kosher GPS, and Kosher Near Me.

Kashrut by location

Israel

Some may perceive that Israel being the Jewish state, all food would be kosher. This is far from being the case, as in Israel, there are plenty of non-kosher restaurants and food products sold in stores. Travelers to Israel shall consult with their rabbi to determine which hechsherim are acceptable in Israel, as they mostly differ from the rest of the world.

United States

In the United States, there is plenty of kosher food available. Most processed foods that are kosher have a hechsher on the label. Foods bearing a hechsher are available in most places, even where there is no Jewish population. Most chain stores have plenty of foods with a hechsher other than meat and most forms of cheese.

Canada

Canada, being a close neighbor of the United States, sells many US-made products that are kosher. Additionally, most large cities have Jewish communities and access to kosher food. 

Latin America

Few Latin American-made products have kosher supervision. But most supermarkets in Latin America carry some US-made products with kashrut supervision.

Europe

In Europe, it is not typical for a hechsher to be printed on the label of a product. However, some items are kosher even without a hechsher. One should consult their rabbi in advance to determine which products are kosher.

Asia (outside Israel)

With the exception of Israel, Asia has a low number of Jewish communities. Nevertheless, there are some places where kosher food can still be obtained.

Ordering special meals

On airlines, cruise ships, and other places, it is often possible to order special kosher meals in advance. Different airlines and cruise lines have different requirements how far in advance such meals must be ordered.

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