Is It Acceptable to Eat Out At A Vegetarian or Vegan-Friendly Indian Restaurant?
Shailoh of the Week by Rabbi Zvi Nussbaum
Rabbinic Coordinator, Kosher Hotline Administrator for the Orthodox Union
In some circles, it has become increasingly common to eat out at Indian restaurants that are vegetarian or vegan-friendly even though the hashgacha may be unreliable. The thinking goes something like this: Indian restaurants don’t serve meat or fish, and I can order foods that don’t contain dairy, so there is very little that can go wrong. Indian restaurants are “almost” kosher. So long as there is a rabbi vouching that it is kosher, though he might have lax standards, isn’t it good enough?
This reminds me of the time I received a call from an out-of-town vaad ha’kashrut that was contemplating giving certification to a local Indian restaurant. The restaurant was owned and managed by non-Jews, and there were several halachic questions the vaad was unable to resolve. The rabbis decided to speak with Rabbi Yisroel Belsky, zt”l, who was an OU senior posek at the time.
Small Jewish communities often lack the resources to support a kosher restaurant. To contend with this challenge, a vaad might try to find an existing (uncertified) restaurant in the neighborhood that is willing to make the necessary changes to become kosher. For this to work financially, it is essential to find a restaurant that is “almost” kosher, i.e., one that will need to make the smallest number of changes. From a kashrut perspective, vegetarian Indian restaurants do indeed have many advantages.
The vaad posed several questions, and Rabbi Belsky was able to offer simple, straightforward solutions. However, one of the questions presented a challenge: “Does the prohibition of bishul akum apply to dosas, a fermented crepe made from a batter of rice and black lentils?” Dosas were apparently a staple of the restaurant. Bishul akum is a rabbinical enactment that prohibits eating cooked foods if there is no Jewish participation in the cooking. However, not all cooked foods are subject to these laws; bishul akum applies only to those dishes that “would be served to nobility.” Unsophisticated foods, such as toasted grains or breakfast cereals, do not fall into this category. The rabbis needed to know—does a dosa qualify as a food fit for nobility? Would the laws of bishul akum apply? Rabbi Belsky was unfamiliar with Indian cuisine, so we arranged for an Indian restaurant to deliver a dosa to the OU offices in New York City. I recall how Rabbi Belsky analyzed the question from many angles, but in the end, he concluded that a dosa is subject to the laws of bishul akum.
For a kosher restaurant that has a mashgiach temidi, ensuring Jewish involvement in the cooking is no big deal. The mashgiach simply needs to light the fires every morning and then monitor them throughout the day to ensure they are not turned off. But for a restaurant located out-of-town, which cannot afford a mashgiach temidi and has a mashgiach drop in two or three times a day, the issue of bishul akum can be a deal-breaker. Some vaadim maintain that it suffices for the mashgiach to stop in to light the oven pilot lights and have a system in place, ensuring that they do not turn off. I don’t know if this particular vaad ever found a way around this issue, but this incident illustrated to me that there is no such thing as “almost” kosher. Truthfully, even in the best-case scenario, there are hundreds of changes that need to take place before an “almost kosher” restaurant can become kosher. (For example, making sure all fresh produce gets checked for insects, and making sure all cooking equipment is kosher.)