Kosher While Traveling: Beijing & Tokyo
Category : Uncategorized
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Note: I am not a rabbi and the opinions related to keeping kosher are my own, based on my experience and asking my own rabbis.
A common question I receive from those who keep kosher and those who do not, is how we keep kosher while traveling. In some places, like Israel and countries in Europe (London, Paris), it’s fairly easy to find an abundance of kosher food. In others, like many smaller islands in the Caribbean and a lot of countries in Asia, it’s a bit harder. A lot of the popular countries have a Chabad that supplies kosher food for the Sabbath and/or a restaurant to travelers wishing to keep kosher.
Here are some general and useful tips I’ve accumulated over the course of my travels to make it easier to keep kosher while traveling:
- Do your research beforehand–many Chabad’s have their own small restaurants, but about a month before your trip, shoot them an email to confirm that they will be open, what their hours are, do you need reservations, etc. This will ensure that if you show up… that they are actually open!
- The leniency of cholov stam (lit. “plain milk”) does not apply to every country (Beijing, China, for example); so be sure to ask before you go.
- If you are going somewhere where this will be a problem, you can bring your own dehydrated milk or powder based creamers which do not need to be refrigerated.
- Before every trip where keeping kosher is difficult, I make a menu itinerary that includes columns for the day, the meal and what activity we’ll be doing. This way, if we’re going to be on a day trip, I know that I won’t be heading to the Chabad for lunch or dinner.
Breakfast Lunch Dinner Tuesday, March 29 Bar Sandwiches Pre-packaged pasta #1 Wednesday, March 30 Bar Grillers/cheese Dini’s Restaurant
- Dry goods such as protein and granola bars, granola, nuts, oatmeal and cereal can go a long way. They’re filling and can help you keep up your energy (unlike chocolate, chips and cookies!).
- You can purchase the above items at foreign/American grocery stores, but they are pricey.
- Soup cups are key, especially where ramen is the norm.
- Do not assume that because something is certified in the U.S., that it is certified abroad. For example, Kit Kat sold in Japan are made in Japan and not imported into the country so they do not bear any certification. They may taste the same but the ingredients can be different which may require certification.
- When going grocery shopping in some countries, think outside the box. For example: getting kosher food in Hawaii can be difficult, but it’s still part of the U.S., so things like Morning Star do exist!
- Eating fresh fruit and vegetables (uncut) is usually okay in most countries. The restriction to not eat it, like in China, is not because it’s not kosher. The restriction exists because of washing products with unfiltered water.
Transporting & Packing/Packaging
To ease your travels while on the road brining some of the following items can be very helpful:
- Plastic cutlery, plates, hot cups (for the microwave) saran wrap and tinfoil
- Small, transportable icepacks that if you need to throw out, you won’t feel bad about
- They fit really well inside any type of sustainable cooler bag that is large enough to hold a good amount of food, keep it insulated for a good lenght amount of time and stay frozen for several hours. Here’s the bag I used. It seems bigger than it is when you first open up the box, so you may want to go a bit bigger. This size fit perfectly on the plane. And on the way back, assuming it’s empty, it doubles as a nice carry-on ;).
- For our pre-packaged meals, we used these containers that are microwavable safe. I can’t get enough of theses! They come in bigger shapes and different configurations, too.
Keeping Kosher in Beijing
Only being in Beijing for three days, I knew that our kosher situation would be a bit easier. Though there is a Chabad, it’s not centrally located (at least to our hotel, which also was not centrally located); it does deliver, though.
As a Hilton Diamond member, you are usually entitled to a free breakfast… Knowing this, and knowing that it would obviously not be kosher, I emailed the hotel and asked them if they could accommodate a kosher request. Sure enough, they ordered us three (free) kosher breakfasts from the Chabad restaurant, Dini’s Kosher Beijing. It was a surprisingly large amount of food, and most of it was pretty tasty! #itneverhurtstoask
Aside from that we had the usual suspects: peanut butter and jelly, Morning Star patties, cheese sandwiches. We also pre-cooked and packaged some pastas that we were able to keep in the mini-fridge in our room. These were great for the evenings we were too tired to go to the Chabad for dinner.
And then of course, we did go to the Chabad’s restaurant for dinner. They only take cash (boo) but the food was delicious. They also had kosher dumplings which made the trip feel a bit more authentic:
As I mentioned above, the leniency of chalav stam did not extend in Beijing, so we drank black coffee most of the time. Had I known this before hand (and listened to my own advice), I’d have brought liquid or dry creamer. You live and you learn!
Keeping Kosher in Tokyo
The majority of our trip was in Tokyo. Packaging up 6-7 days worth of to-go meals was not realistic for us, so we depended on the Chabad for Shabbat dinner and lunch, and many dinners in the evening. The prices were what you’d expect and the portions were generous. Though nothing inventive, it’s always nice to end your day off with a fresh and hot meal. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches can only take you so far…
There is a second kosher falafel restaurant in Tokyo, called King Falafel. The falafel was delicious, prices were fair, but the location is a bit out of the way. If you’re nearby, it’s definitely worth a visit. They are open Monday – Friday and only for lunch. Call ahead to confirm.
Unlike Beijing, the leniency of chalav stam does extend to Tokyo, at least, so we were able to drink coffee like we’re used to.
Something that is somewhat controversial are vegan and vegetarian restaurants. In Tokyo (and Japan in general), contrary to popular belief, those types of restaurants are a rarity. Not only is vegan, vegetarian and kosher hard to come by, so is halal food. Any sort of dietary restriction is pretty difficult to accommodate without bringing your own food or going to the same restaurant everyday.
So that’s exactly what we did, plus the above mentioned items.
Snacks are also difficult. Most products in your generic grocery store are not imported; rather, made and manufactured in Japan or surrounding countries. This means that they would not be certified kosher. In fact, the Chabad informed us that even if the ingredients are the same, the product can be problematic. Oh, well.
Two last things:
- Fresh fruit is really delicious in Japan
- Fish is a major food category in Japan. That being said, you can purchase raw kosher fish from the market and have your hotel double wrap it and bake it–if you’re comfortable doing so.
[Saran] Wrapping it up
There are good kosher travel meal options out there (Pomegranate), but for this trip it didn’t make sense, considering there were local charades with restaurants. (A future post on the different kosher travel to-go meals). With what we packed and the restaurants, we never went hungry. Next time, I’ll bring more snacks.