(photo credit: Shahar Azran)
For a long time, kosher and gourmet were two incompatible terms, especially when it came to cheese.
But now a Los Angeles-based company has bridged the two, offering gourmet kosher cheeses, many of which are imported from Israel.
Brigitte Mizrahi, a French Jew based in Los Angeles who displayed her assortment of cheeses at this year's Kosherfest, started selling cheese 10 years ago when she saw a niche in the market that had not yet been met -sophisticated, upscale, kosher cheeses.
Mizrahi began her company, Anderson International Foods, Inc., with a line of artisan, everyday cheeses called Natural & Kosher.
But since her start in the kosher food business, Mizrahi has increasingly begun catering to cheese lovers for whom the "kosher" label is only an added benefit. "There are amazing kosher wines, but there need to be cheeses to go with them," Mizrahi said.
The new brand, called Sincerely Brigitte, has reached further into the gourmet market with its line of boutique cheeses, including sliced feta, packaged and ready for use in salads or sandwiches.
In roughly four months, Mizrahi will expand this line to include a fancy cheddar made from raw milk that has been aged for six to eight months, as well as a Manchego and other European-style cheeses.
Mizrahi's is one of hundreds of companies whose kosher products, ranging from Asian dumplings to tacos, are on display at this year's Kosherfest at the Jacob Javits Convention Center in New York City. Kosherfest is the largest international kosher trade show and is co-produced by Diversified Business Communications and Lubicom Marketing & Consulting.
"This festival is major because we are trying to expose Israeli food manufacturers to the American market, and this is one important venue," said Beth Balkin, director of communications for the government of Israel's economic mission. "This is an opportunity to show our wares."
Among the participating companies are many "crossover" companies -Latin-based or Asian food companies with kosher certification and kosher companies producing Latin or Asian foods.
Today the ethnic food market generates about $75 billion a year and accounts for $1 out of every $7 spent on groceries in the US. The expanding ethnic food market mirrors the influx of new immigrants as well as Americans' expanded culinary palette.
"Kosher, like other ethnic foods, has benefited from the twin characterization of being ethnic as well as specialty," said Menachem Lubinsky, co-producer of Kosherfest.
Gone Nuts!, a new kosher product from Najla's, Inc. of Louisville, Kentucky, won Best in Show in this year's new products competition. Winners in 15 categories of new kosher food products were selected by a panel of food professionals. Only Kosherfest exhibitors whose products were introduced within the last 13 months were eligible.
Shas MK Eli Yishai offered words of encouragement at the festival, Wednesday, as part of his trip to New York to meet with foreign investors and Jewish leaders.
"I didn't eat breakfast today so I could taste from all the booths," Yishai said through an English interpreter. "My looks might confuse you, but I have a good appetite."
Galilee Ethnic Delicacies, one of the 50 Israeli companies represented at the festival, was the only Israeli Arab company present. After 15 years of exporting goods, 20 percent of the company's sales are to foreign countries, including the US and Western Europe.
The company specializes in kosher Middle Eastern sweets from Nazareth, but also exports olive oil, tahina and frozen pita bread. The company exports to the general market but focuses on the kosher foods market.
"There is high competition from the Arab world in these products, so we specialize in authentic and kosher foods where we have no competitor," said Ameen Faris, manager for Galilee Ethnic Delicacies.
Faris said Israel has two separate economies, a very developed economy that is dominated by Jewish Israelis, and a much less developed economy that includes Israeli Arabs' economic activities.
"The government should make more efforts to integrate us into the economy," Faris said. "If they encourage economic activity in our community, maybe it will upgrade other [activities] as well, such as the social and political."
Faris said the current government has made many "announcements" about greater economic integration of Israeli Arabs and said he hopes they would come true.