Fit For Consumption

Keeping kosher when dining in Saigon

For a great old faith that has lasted for millennia, there’s a certain youthful humor at the heart of Judaism. The Jewish religion is a vibrant, warm tradition that values erudition and learning just as highly as it does joyous celebration – and no truly Jewish life can be separated from the pleasure taken in eating good and proper food.

The concept of just what constitutes kosher food in this tradition, however, is often misunderstood by those outside the faith. It wouldn’t be right to see the kosher system as a set of arbitrary rules imposed from on high merely to remind believers of their duties. That doesn’t take into account the satisfaction followers experience in practicing a lifestyle grounded in basic ingredients – both culinary and otherwise – that they hold to be wholesome and fit for good living. Far from being a burden on the faithful, dining kosher is something Jewish people consider as one of life’s greatest joys.

The Chabad of Vietnam, which exists to serve the Jewish expat community resident in Ho Chi Minh City (as well as those just passing through), is chiefly concerned with the provision of kosher meals, without which Jewish people would face a huge barrier in leading their daily lives here. The Chabad’s Rabbi Menachem Hartman (pictured below left) oversees its kosher restaurant – which is the only one of its kind in the whole of southern Vietnam. “People come to eat,” explains Rabbi Hartman, who has run the facility in Saigon for the past nine years. “We celebrate big holidays every year, and we cater for all the celebratory gatherings. Many of the Jewish holidays go with food; they’re inseparable, and there’s no other kosher restaurant in town. Kosher products are available – like tuna in a can – but not fresh food.”

It’s easy to underestimate the importance of having kosher food available to Jewish travelers. “It means that they’re able to travel here,” explains Rabbi Hartman. “It’s not only the orthodox Jews – many Jewish people who don’t observe everything still keep up a certain level of kosher eating. If they want to eat outside, they can eat only vegetarian food; if they want kosher food, then they come here. But with many Jewish people in Vietnam, even if they eat vegetarian in other countries, here they avoid it and eat only kosher. They just don’t trust even the vegetarian restaurants here.”

Open every day and catering to all guests – even those from outside the faith – the Chabad restaurant does a good business, providing not only a source of ritually clean nourishment, but also a taste of home. “People want to eat food from the home,” says Rabbi Hartman. “It has to remind them of their mother or their father. That’s really what it is. Israelis, even Americans want to see food that reminds them of home. Felafel, schnitzel. That’s not Israeli – it’s from Vienna, but Israelis like to eat schnitzel. Americans like to eat hamburgers. The main reason people come here is because it’s kosher, but also because the food is good.” Life of Service The Chabad also caters for hotels a
nd events attended by Jewish people. While the menu at the restaurant is relatively simple (although preparations are underway to extend the range of options shortly), for big events like Passover, professional chefs are brought in from outside. “We can bring in any professional cook,” says Rabbi Hartman, “so long as they follow the rules. We provide the ingredients, so there are no mistakes. They use only our ingredients.”

Being based in Ho Chi Minh City allows the Rabbi to offer consulting services to the 70-80 local food production factories who export kosher food abroad. Demand for the Chabad’s services has been such that he has recently been joined by his nephew Rabbi Avremi Hartman (previous page, left) from New York, who has been appointed the Chabad’s new shluchim. Despite the primary focus on serving Jewish needs simply by serving Jewish food, the new Rabbi Hartman draws great inspiration from his role. “Yes, it’s a life of service, contributing, helping,” he says. “It’s a good feeling to get up every morning to go help other people. It’s something more than ‘work, go home, work, go home.’ That’s good for 10 or 15 years, but afterwards, you don’t have anything beyond that.”

While the Rabbis’ way of life at the Chabad could be described as spiritual, there’s an important distinction in the Jewish faith. “Judaism doesn’t separate spiritual life and physical life,” explains the Rabbi. “Kosher food is physical, but it becomes part of your body when you eat it. You have to watch what you put in.” And what if, by some accident, a believer was to eat non-kosher food by mistake? “Keeping kosher is strict,” explains the Rabbi. “But if you accidentally don’t eat it, we say ‘just be careful next time.’ Do you eat dog meat? What would you do if you accidentally ate it? Either you love it, and you look for it next time, or you don’t like it, you regret it, you feel sorry and next time you’ll try to avoid it. We say ‘be sorry, and don’t do it again.’” “We did have a punishment,” the Rabbi jokes, “but I lost my stick!”

The Chabad of Vietnam (Villa 5A Nguyen Dinh Chieu, D1; 3910 0181) is open for meals every day. Popular dishes are felafel (VND90,000), shakshuka (VND80,000), hamburger (VND160,000), and schnitzel (VND180,000).

Images by Ngoc Tran

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