Kosher Chat & Chew on

By Lisa Scherzer

Published October 10, 2003, issue of October 10, 2003.
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‘Chowhounders know that kosher food has come a long way from Tam-Tam crackers and Stella D’Oro cookies,” Amy Tarshis told the Forward, referring to the hundreds of thousands of devotees that flock to the Web site’s message boards to swap tales of far-flung food and flavor.

Once upon a time, the priority of patrons of kosher restaurants was a favorable kosher certification. But for today’s kosher palates, taste and experimental fare are top concerns.

Jewish food-lovers who keep kosher and consider themselves gastronomes have in — a Web site for food-lovers and enthusiasts — a democratic forum where everyone gets their say. Having trouble finding kosher refried beans? Want to know if dark beers are kosher? Wondering why you can’t get a decent challah in the nation’s capital? Desperate to find chipotle chilies in adobo sauce? Looking for a kosher nosh in Belgium? Searching for a funky eatery to impress your hipster friends from San Francisco? Wondering if Bailey’s original Irish Cream is kosher? can give you some answers.

In addition to its main message board, which focuses on nonkosher food throughout the country, the site also has a kosher discussion board.

The site became a primary source of kosher food news for Tarshis, who began keeping kosher in 1999 after an Orthodox Union video “opened [her] eyes.” She produces and hosts a weekly Jewish music radio program on the New York-based WSNR, and said she frequently mentions kosher places she thinks the audience would like. Chowhound’s kosher board gives her information on restaurants as well as kosher food shops and ingredients.

Jim Leff, who started the Web site, included the kosher board on the site from its inception in 1997, but his real religion is delicious food and the pursuit of it.

His central belief system is this: “In every genre, cuisine, price, neighborhood, there’s something wonderful being cooked and sold. It’s just a matter of searching a bit further and refusing to settle… ever,” he said. For those who make this quest part of their lifestyle, “when they find my Web site and realize that there are others like them, they tend to go berserk and get deeply addicted,” said Leff, who is Jewish.

The site is also a hot spot for breaking news. Tarshis said she was the first to announce that kosher foie gras from France was soon to be sold in the United States — an act she considered “a mitzvah.” “It gave me great naches to break that good news to my fellow kosher foodies,” she said.

Though postings on the kosher board are sparse, it is not unusual to see questions about where to find kosher bubble tea in New York or the best kibbe in Los Angeles. Some postings have evolved into long expositions on the halachic and kabbalistic background of shechita (ritual animal slaughtering) and back-and-forth debates over whether a particular rabbi’s certification should be trusted.

Throughout the site’s postings, the tone is usually light and the users are all adventurous and, most importantly, passionate about food. Kosher cookbook writer Joan Nathan could be called a qualified fan of the site, describing it as fun and “slightly irreverent,” adding that “there are people totally devoted to looking at these food sites, but I can barely do my own work.”

Hall Street Kosher Café is one example of a restaurant that was under the radar before it was outed on Chowhound. Serving traditional Jewish dishes like latkes, cheese blintzes and noodle kugel, the cafe is located in a long trailer parked in an abandoned lot across from the Brooklyn Navy Yards. Since it’s been touted on Chowhound, Leff said, it has achieved a higher profile.

Because Chowhound is run as a labor of love and not for profit, Leff must count on the more than 350,000 users who visit the site each month for support. The treasure trove of food tips is free (though subscriptions to the newsletter cost $15 for six months), so Leff must occasionally remind users to “pay for value received in order to assure the survival of the resource,” he said.

Steve (who did not want his last name used in this article), a 44-year-old product manager for an international bank who travels extensively on business, uses the site to ask for recommendations for kosher dining establishments in places like Panama and Argentina. “I probably visited 90 countries in the past two years,” he said. “Wherever I go, I really don’t like taking food with me. I’m always looking for places to eat and take business associates.”

The site posts a warning of sorts to keep the non-hounds at bay:

Foodies eat where they’re told; they eagerly follow trends and rarely go where Zagat hasn’t gone before. Chowhounds, on the other hand, blaze trails, combing gleefully through neighborhoods for hidden culinary treasure. They despise hype, and while they appreciate refined ambiance and service, they can’t be fooled by mere flash.

For those whose lifeblood is in food, Chowhound is a forum to boast intimate knowledge of the subject. Irwin Koval, a regular contributor to the site’s message boards, is a retired restaurateur from New York. Koval — who ran kosher kitchens in the Concord and Nevele hotels in the Catskills and opened Lindy’s deli in Hong Kong — knows his stuff.

Koval, who lives in Seattle and does not keep kosher, said “Chowhound is the best site on the Internet for eaters and for food.” One of his proudest Chowhound achievements was posting the original recipe for Mama Leone’s lasagna (on the main section since it has meat and cheese). Koval worked in the famous Manhattan restaurant’s kitchen when he was 15. “It got tremendous play,” he said.

Lisa Scherzer is a writer living in New York.

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