July 25, 2024

Cooking kosher in Arabia

Kosher Arabia was one of the companies that participated in the 2023 Onboard Hospitality Forum-Asia in Singapore on November 8-9.

In this interview with Stuart Forster, Editor of Onboard Hospitality magazine, David Johnson, Business Development Manager at Kosher Arabia, and Elyes Benali, General Manager of the Dubai-based company, discuss trends relating to kosher food consumption.

Stuart Forster (SF): What trends are you seeing in terms of the kosher products that are being requested? 

David Johnson (DJ): More and more people are travelling and I think that people’s palates are becoming more refined. The hotels that we have here in Dubai are outstanding and kosher travellers paying top dollar expect well-presented food. 

Food can be hugely important to some of the travellers that come here. They want great food and that’s what we’re offering. The team here has created a much smarter product, which is what the Emirates Flight Catering (EKFC) initiative with Emirates wanted to offer – something on par with the food they serve typically on board the world’s best airline. They didn’t want a kosher product falling short of that, which is why Kosher Arabia was established. And with the Abraham Accords being signed, it all fell into sync.  

[The Abraham Accords were signed in 2020, normalising diplomatic relationships between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.] 

SF: Demand for vegan food and dishes made with plant-based proteins has grown in recent years. To what extent is that reflected in the kosher food now available? 

DJ: It’s a great tick for us because we offer vegan and vegetarian, and we’re a lactose-free kitchen, so there is no dairy within this whole facility. We tick many boxes, not just the fact that you may be religious, but we tick many special meal boxes. 

Elyes Benali (EB): We are Orthodox Union (OU) certified. That certification is considered among the highest standards in kosher certification. That means the ingredients we are getting are the best of the best. 

If our customers are mindful of what they are eating and where it is sourced, we tick this box because we import premium products from different parts of the world, mainly the US. When we provide a service, which is food in general, we’re competing with everyone else on the expectation of the service and the quality that they get. 

We don’t compare ourselves today only to other kosher companies but to high-end restaurants in the type of food they’re providing. We are providing excellent food that is at the level of the expectation of customers who come to Dubai and travel on a luxurious airline like Emirates. 

We’re not a huge player. We are small and we’re trying to do the right thing for our customers. We’re not trying to grow exponentially, even though it’s an ambition and we would love to get there. We’re taking it slowly and doing it the right way, step by step. 

The business started with airlines – Emirates specifically. From there the business started to grow significantly because Dubai is a destination that tourists are coming to now the community is allowed to travel to UAE with more ease thanks to the Abraham Accords. 

Since the Abraham Accords, there have been a million kosher travellers to the UAE. There are many Jews that come to the UAE that are not counted as kosher because they come they are not kosher-strict. 

Now that we have established the business with Emirates, we are expanding our business in the airline and to other airlines and exports. We’re looking beyond the Gulf region. We started exploring Europe and also the east part of this world and the Americas. So we are trying to have a global reach. 

Local business is growing as well. We are present in retail and, more and more, in hospitality. The expectations of the customers grow and we are developing more and more recipes tailored for our customers. If they want to eat sushi, they would like to eat kosher sushi.  

SF: What is the daily capacity of your kitchen?  

EB: The capacity of the kitchen is around 2,500 meals a day.  

We prepare around 300 to 400 meals a day during the low season, when it is hot in Dubai. But in high season we reach sometimes 1,000 to 1,100 meals a day.  

SF: Where did you learn your kosher cooking? 

Kosher Arabia is a joint venture between Emirates Flight Catering (EKFC) and a partner from the community. We have that knowledge of kosher cooking coming from the shareholders. 

EKFC is the best in class worldwide when it comes to airline catering. So we’ve learned and we got that knowledge directly from EKFC. Then from the kosher side of the business, we get the knowledge from the community.  

The shareholder is what I would call the ambassador of the community in the UAE and a prominent person who is really involved in the community. Also, we are surrounding ourselves with people; an Israeli chef who is coming to support and deliver the fine-tuning.  

We have an amazing Executive Chef in Trent Sanft. He comes from EKFC and his background is hospitality in high-end hotels. Part of the learning curve is getting our chef to visit other countries, where Israeli food is made, and learning additional skills. 

DJ: We have two mashgiachs [kosher supervisors] based on site. Every day the operation’s running, there are mashgiachs here to ensure that the heat is turned on and turned off.  

It’s incredibly strict because we are governed by the OU. These people are here to ensure that we comply with all the rules.  

Our chef, Trent, is not Jewish. He’s a New Zealander and an innovative chap who leads a small team of ladies and gentlemen who are incredible. The total size is 25 people. 

SF: Is there a dish that you’re particularly associated with?  

DJ: The babka is amazing. Our breads are out of this world.  

From the brief that we got from our airlines in general, Emirates tended to provide Middle Eastern twists to the menu, not only on kosher but on every single menu they have and propose for all destinations. That’s why they selected the items that are being served today, including chicken tajin, Yemeni lamb, shakshuka and Chilean sea bass with rice.  

SF: Does it take any longer to develop new dishes for airlines than your other clients? 

EB: In general, with airlines, it is much longer because of the decision-making and approval processes.  

The challenge for a company like ours in the UAE is to continue providing the highest quality food sourcing the highest quality ingredients, knowing that kosher ingredients do not exist most of the time here in the UAE. We have to import them. 

But Chef Trent has been doing an amazing job by trying also to get local companies more involved and producing local kosher items. We partnered with many suppliers and went through the certification, so we got them to be able to produce OU-certified products. 

Our aim is also to boost this industry as well. Fish is being sourced locally. A lot of spices are being sourced locally. Some of the cheeses have to be important because we use dairy-free but we are in the process of also getting some local suppliers to provide us with vegan versions of cheeses.  

DJ: People’s palates are changing and they’re moving away from dairy. Not only does kosher fit those boxes, it also means that suppliers are already interested in creating alternatives for the wider customer base. 

SF: What about the packaging?  

DJ: Onboard we use a lot of cardboard and very little cellophane or plastic. The cutlery that’s used, particularly in economy, is made from compressed palm leaves – we have thousands outside here. 

The only plastic that you will find is covering the tea pouch and the wipe for the hands and we are trying to fix that. Apart from that, all the components of the tray are recyclable and sustainable. The most common items are the containers where we put the food. They are made of sustainable recycled material. 

SF: Are there any other points that you would like to make? 

EB: The mandate was five-star dishes and meals. Being able to come up with recipes that are dairy-free and vegan but tasty is a challenge but we have a knowledgeable and creative team. We’re always constantly looking at how we can improve and that’s why we stay ahead of the competition. 

What’s really interesting is when we go to hotels, our Executive Chef will ask if that hotel has a signature dish and he’ll look if he can replicate it and create something which is kosher. That means there is a kosher alternative for kosher guests.  

SF: How do you anticipate kosher food on airlines developing? 

EB: I see this business growing even more. The more we get our product out there, the more people will find out that kosher is really good and start ordering. The competition will also have to uplift their game. Quality will increase, the tastes will improve and people will come back.  

There is also an element related to kosher food, especially OU food. Due to the sourcing of the premium ingredients, people actually will be more keen to order kosher, even if they’re not kosher, because it’s high quality. I see it being perceived as a healthier option.  

If we talk only about the protein, the animal, to be kosher, has to follow a certain lifestyle – so it will be grass-fed. It won’t be pumped with any hormones. It’s not only about how we slaughter the animal, it’s about how the animal has grown, so the quality itself is amazing. So kosher is associated with healthier, quality food. The more people are looking at the healthy side of the business, the more kosher will benefit.  

Many Muslims, when they travel abroad and can’t find halal products, will go to a kosher place because they know that kosher goes on top of whatever is halal because they follow the same rules of slaughter.  

Lactose-free and dairy-free are great for us.