Olympic Beijing going kosher

Food-safety issues push forward kosher boom ahead of August games.

kosher beijing 224.63 ap (photo credit: )
kosher beijing 224.63 ap
(photo credit: )
Beijing and the Olympics are going kosher. The capital's only kosher restaurant opened 10 months ago, drawing the small Jewish expatriate community, tourists, curious Chinese and even a few Muslims. Business has been so good at Dini's Kosher Restaurant, that part-owner Lewis Sperber is talking about setting up a second branch closer to the Olympic venues in northern Beijing. Like many restaurateurs and bar owners, Sperber is hoping to benefit with as many as 550,000 foreigners expected to descend on Beijing for the August 8-24 Games. "What we've thought about is preparing sandwiches and other items at a venue closer than we are now to the Olympic sites," Sperber said. "If people leave the Olympics and want a kosher meal, we could have a place for them." Eating kosher is hardly a raging fad. However, there is a real boom in the number of Chinese factories being certified to export kosher products. This is driven partially by recent food safety scares in China involving contaminated seafood, pet food and toothpaste. Kosher certifications in China conducted by the Orthodox Union have doubled to 307 in the last two years. "I think business will be very overwhelming during the Olympics," said Minette Ramia, who manages Dini's, a modern, pastel-colored eatery located on Super Bar Street - an aptly named alleyway lined with restaurants and bars just down the street from the Israeli embassy. "From the hygiene side, whether someone is kosher or not, Jewish or not, people will want food from here because it is considered cleaner and more hygienic, being that we're in China," Ramia said. "A Muslim woman came in recently because she can't eat meat anywhere else." The staff and cooks at Dini's are nearly all Chinese. Waiters bring new Chinese customers a handout to explain kosher, which is called "Jie Shi" in Chinese - "clean food." "When Chinese come, I don't think they know what to order," said Zhao Haixia, the assistant manager. "Normally they just rely on us to tell them what's good." The menu features both Ashkenazi and Sephardi food traditions. Mainstays like matza ball soup, chopped liver and gefilte fish are seldom chosen by Chinese, who more often go for kosher beef dumplings (Jiaozi) or sizzling beef - kosher style. Gefilte fish is a hard sell. "In China, eating cold fish doesn't sound so good," Zhao said. Like Beijing's noxious air, China's food safety is one of the most sensitive issues surrounding the Olympics, carrying the potential to ruin China's $40 billion preparations to use the Games to show off a modern nation removed from its agrarian roots. One food-poisoning case, like one positive doping test - particularly by a Chinese athlete - could grab headlines for weeks and ruin the public relations effort by the communist government. Following a string of food scandals last year, Beijing organizers launched an aggressive campaign to showcase a new monitoring method aimed at tracing products from the field to the table. The government also unveiled the Olympic Food Safety Command Center to deal with food emergencies. "Precautions must be taken to avert any trace of a terrorist attack on our food supply chain," said Zhang Zhikuan, head of the Beijing Industry and Commerce Bureau. Concern centers on the safety standards of meat, and stimulants used to boost yields. Some fear drugs used in animal feed could trigger positive doping tests among athletes. At least one of the new monitoring systems - coding on packaging to trace the source of production - has long been required for kosher certification. "The fact that there is another set of eyes coming through the plants on a regular basis - such as the kosher auditing or kosher supervisors - means that the companies, the factories are more careful about hygiene and sanitation," said Rabbi Mordechai Grunberg, who examines Chinese factories for the Orthodox Union. China's kosher exports are composed almost exclusively of food additives, spices, vegetables and candies. "It's like any other product coming out of China," Grunberg said. "Outsourcing has gotten easier, quality has gotten higher and the price is cheaper." Rabbi Shimon Freundlich, who also inspects for the Orthodox Union and owns a part-interest in Dini's, said American-based food companies are asking him to conduct non-kosher inspections of their operations in China. He called them "100 percent" related to recent food scandals in China. "They don't necessarily want it for kosher purposes," he said. "They just want to make sure they can guarantee that the standard promised by the company is what's being produced." The Jewish population in mainland China is only a few thousand and exclusively expatriates - 1,500 in Beijing, 1,000 in Shanghai and 500 in Guangzhou. Several thousand more are scattered in small cities, with 4,000 in Hong Kong. Historians suggest a small Chinese Jewish community existed centuries ago in the central city of Kaifeng. Grunberg is optimistic a domestic kosher market will develop in China, fueled partly by hygiene issues. "I think there will be a big market here, and a big market could mean just a fraction of a percent of 1.3 billion. With only that, you'll have a bigger market than we have for kosher in the United States." Both kosher and halal products will be available at the Olympic Athletes Village, a requirement of the International Olympic Committee. The Philadelphia-based company Aramark is running the catering operation and will serve 17,000 athletes and officials at dining rooms capable of feeding 6,000 at once on a 24-hour schedule. The Olympic kosher kitchen is being lined up by Freundlich, the rabbi of Beijing's Jewish community. "I would be the overall supervisor of the kitchen and have a number of colleagues helping me maintain the kosher standard throughout the Olympics," he said. "We'd expect to serve 300-400 meals a day, more than twice what I'm told was served in Athens." Sourcing of most halal and kosher products in China is easy - except for meat. No factory has been certified to export kosher meats from China. Many factories are certified to produce halal, though exporting halal meat from China is difficult, with some Islamic countries suspicious of Chinese certification. China is estimated to have a Muslim population of 1-2 percent of its 1.3 billion people, most living in the west of China. "Normally it's easy to export halal non-meat products from China, but meat products certified in China are more difficult," said Ray Chueng, a Shanghai businessman who helps factories get halal or kosher certification. "I think even Chinese Muslims are not so careful with halal things," Chueng added. "They know what you can eat and can't eat, but they are not very careful if things are labeled halal." Penny Xiang, deputy director of the Game Services Department for the Olympics, said 36 food suppliers have been picked for the Games, "all under very close supervision." She declined to offer extra details. "I think the government's food security committee has formulated a special standard for the Olympic Games compared with the national standard and the World Health Organization standard," she said. Asked how the new standard compared, she replied, "It's probably higher." She said daily food consumption at the Athletes Village would reach 100,000 kilograms, with daily rubbish weighing 50,000 kg. "Sometimes it's the easiest and simplest things that make the most complex job," Xiang said. "People think preparing food is so natural, so easy. It comes to you every day and you are so used to it, so you don't think there is any complexity behind it... Eating is easy, but serving the right food to people is hard." Xiang said many of China's "most influential politicians" wanted the Olympics to showcase only Chinese cuisine in the Athletes Village. Several proposed preparing 2,000 Peking roast ducks - the capital's specialty - for athletes before the August 8 opening ceremony. Presumably some would have been kosher ducks. "It was ruled out," Xiang said. "We'd need to serve all of this just before the biggest moment for commotion and confusion. Just imagine how that would have been."