When the Abraham Accords were signed in 2020, the prospects for tourism in the Middle East looked up. The accords normalised relationships between Israel and the UAE and paved the way for new direct flights to the region. While Covid-19 then dampened enthusiasm to travel, the provision of kosher inflight catering is now seeing a resurgence and specialist kitchens are responding to the need.
The kosher market itself is growing as the Jewish population thrives. There are currently seven million Jews in Israel, six million in the US and two more million spread worldwide. They look for foods that conform to kashrut (Jewish dietary law), derived from the Torah and overseen by rabbis.
Paul Harris, editor of the Jewish Telegraph, says: “Kosher catering is very important to the Jewish traveller because the Orthodox rules are strict and if a suitable meal is not available, a Jewish traveller may well eat nothing except water and black coffee, and perhaps an uncut apple if available. Taking a standard meal is just not an option for them.”
He travels regularly and notes that kosher catering standards vary. Some serve only glatt kosher (strictly kosher) meals to the whole flight, from their dedicated kitchens, while others source from kosher catering specialists with processes overseen by the rabbis and certified, double wrapped and sealed in the kitchen.
He says: “The kosher food scene is generally extremely creative. While some people say kosher is boring and very traditional, nowadays kosher meals increasingly reflect consumer trends and changes in the broader culinary world.”
The rules can seem complex and impact menu design and the ingredients that can be used or served together, service styles, beverage choices and tableware. Anxieties sit around the use of ovens where non-kosher meals may have been heated; the use of different tableware for dairy and non-diary items, and the need for double wrapping until the passenger opens the meal.
Wim Pannekoek, of Kragtwijk Finest Foods (formerly Langerhuize), in the Netherlands started out creating food for a kosher hospital but has been dedicated to airline business for the past 28 years, supplying KLM and then Air France, Lufthansa, Etihad and Alitalia/ITA among others.
In 2018 the Langerhuize business was taken over by Kragtwijk, a high end event catering company, and since then the emphasis has been a constant push towards quality.
Pannekoek says: “In the past, our focus was more on production and availability; now we focus not only on the highest level of kosher supervision but the best meals possible. Kosher food is healthy, tasty and attractive, and production is hygienic with a clear declaration of ingredients. We are proud of the positive feedback we get directly from passengers and this is key to the future because such feedback is vital for airlines.”
The Kragtwijk team is inspired by modern international cuisines and the range includes Thai curry and Oriental chicken dishes, fresh fish, English breakfasts and a wide selection of salads and desserts, as well as sandwiches and second service snacks. Packaging has been designed for ease of use and service, and for major airlines, their own premium tableware is used to show the airline’s deep commitment to the kosher request.
“Kosher catering is basically not really complicated once you know what the rules are, and there is never a question of whether something is kosher or not, because you work under the strict supervision of rabbi and dedicated supervisors who understand what’s what. The rabbi can come into the kitchens whenever he wants, and many of our chefs have a Jewish background too so they are clear what has to be done and when. We also have our own kosher bakery producing in house to kosher recipes.”
He reports the kosher market is growing, mostly in business class, and that Kragtwijk volumes are already back to 2019 production levels. “We are optimistic that business is rebuilding and forthcoming Jewish holidays and the Abraham Accords will help,” he says.
While the kosher market itself may be only a small percentage of total inflight catering, the growing demand for special meals and greater attention to food ingredients and quality is also supporting kosher growth trends. Kragtwijk menus are now being designed so they can also be certified halal and lactose-free to suit those special meal requirements too. Hygiene and ingredient concerns mean non-Jews now also request kosher.
Matt Rickard, General Manager of Kosher Arabia, has researched the market in depth prior to launching two years ago. He says: “The global market for kosher foods was estimated at US$27.3bn in the year 2020 and is projected to reach US$54bn by 2027, growing at a CAGR of 10.2%. Jewish religion is not the only factor driving the growth; the quality and safety of kosher- certified food products are increasingly gaining prominence. Furthermore, a rising affluent Jewish population, health awareness and changing lifestyles are other factors influencing revenue growth in this market.”
Indicative of trends, he highlights the fact that of the 10.5m Americans who eat kosher products, only 20% are Jewish. Other kosher consumers include Muslims, Seventh-day Adventists, lactose-intolerant and vegetarians. As allergies rise, consumers are seeking high levels of food assurance, animal welfare and food safety, and find comfort in choosing kosher. The precise labelling on kosher products also makes it easy for them to find dairy-free and meat-free items, he says.
Rickard adds: “Kosher catering tends to have a reputation of being a bit dated and very traditional and, as a result, the most creative and innovative of chefs have not always been drawn to this specialism. There are obviously some limitations on the ingredients that can be used and combined, and the way they can be served, but kosher consumers are changing and those producing kosher meals must too. The next generation of kosher consumers wants to be a part of the culinary conversation in the wider world food-scape, so there are now opportunities for kosher chefs to be creative and show what they can do even within the restrictions of the kosher supply chain and ingredients. This is attracting fresh talent and bringing new culinary influences into the kosher kitchen.”
He sees changing tastes, the need for convenience, the desire for experience, engagement, theatre and personalisation as all driving development in this sector, as well as the digital demand for insta-worthy foods, and wider societal concerns around food, health and the impacts on the environment.
Based in Dubai, Kosher Arabia, is a joint venture with Emirates Flight Catering. Products are dual certified by the Orthodox Union (OU) and key to the meal presentation is colourful clean packaging that fits half, two-thirds, and full Atlas trays. The meal trays accommodate double-wrapped and sealed hot items to be removed and heated by the crew before serving while ensuring the kosher integrity throughout.
To minimise single-use plastics, hot and cold items are served in sugarcane compostable oven containers alongside cutlery made from local palm leaf pulps.
In Japan, Gate Gourmet is providing the first ever kosher inflight meals out of a new facility in Narita. Koshefs meals are prepared in a kosher-certified kitchen using Japanese local ingredients and state-of-the-art cook-chill-frozen technologies. The menu reflects the essence of Japan yet is fully kashrut. The team is also producing kosher bread and cakes in the kitchen from scratch.
The colourful meals are neatly presented in bespoke eco-friendly Japanese style bento boxes and the goal is to deliver authentic and delicious kosher meals to customers.
Despite the challenges of the pandemic kosher kitchens have continued to innovate. Hermolis, which has been supplying British Airways for over 20 years, found new ways to develop menus during the pandemic, with the usual annual reviews and presentations done over Zoom.
The caterer, founded in 1956, remains a family firm and counts American Airlines, Virgin Atlantic, Emirates, Qatar, Air Canada, Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines (as well as many hotels and retail outlets) among its clients. Well known in the UK’s Jewish community, it helpfully provides direct links from its own website to the menu pre-ordering pages of partner airlines.
Avi Lisser, Hermolis COO, says: “Quality is our number one priority and, as a manager, I spend pretty much all my day down on the production line. We pride ourselves on giving the same service to every client whether a corporate client, an airline or a person at home ordering in a lunch, everybody gets the same service and the quality.”