Tips and Challenges of Keeping Kosher While Traveling
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Imagine walking down the bustling streets of Bangkok, past street food vendors hawking their wares and delectable smells wafting your way. You’re wondering what the perfect #foodporn picture would be for posting on Instagram when you realize that, wait a minute, you keep kosher. So you just keep on walking…
A good deal of travel requires immersing yourself in local cultures — what’s better than diving your face into a steaming bowl of Pad Thai? Well, when you are a traveler with dietary restrictions, there are logistical challenges. With that in mind, here are some tips that can make kosher travel abroad experiences more satisfying:
1. Skip the Airline Kosher Meal and Bring Your Own
Airlines are delightful in so many ways — sometimes they even drag you off a plane or ask you to pee in a cup — but they do offer an extensive list of special meals. Every major airline offers a kosher option, known in aviation parlance as KSML, except one: Hawaiian Airlines. But its flight attendants were incredibly hospitable and happy to improvise on the fly.
Recently, I shared the experience of a family bound for South Africa on a 16-hour flight without their Kosher meals. No one wants to be in that situation, which is why you should always bring a back-up. You must assume you won’t find anything else to eat on the plane once you’ve taken off. Sure, this means you’ll need to plan ahead and make some to-go meals, but nothing is better than a home-cooked meal at 36,000 feet.
2. Do Your Research, and Do It Again
When planning a trip, we pour over reviews and scour the internet to plan every step of what we’re going to do and when. When traveling kosher, you need to do the same for your food. The single best source for finding out about kosher options abroad is Chabad.org, a global organization with more than 3,500 institutions worldwide. Often times, the local Chabad institution will have its own restaurant or meals and will usually have a page on its site dedicated to keeping kosher in that locale.
After you’ve found your restaurant, be sure to look it up online as well. Sometimes the restaurants will list their opening and closing times, but it’s important to contact that establishment and confirm that information. Many restaurant websites are in foreign languages and sometimes Google translate just doesn’t cut it! By calling or emailing, you can be sure to cut down on some of the confusion as there's little worse than getting to your oasis of kosher in a food desert only to find that restaurant closed — trust me, I know from experience.
3. When in Rome: Eat Like the Locals
You've got through your 14-hour flight to Tokyo, found the local kosher restaurant, but still feel left out? In certain places, you can eat like the locals. For example, finding noodles and hot water is a pretty easy task in many Asian countries. Some of the most durable kosher products that don’t require refrigeration and are easy to store include soup cups (of all flavors and varieties); all you need is some hot water.
4. It Never Hurts to Ask
In my travels, I’ve found that most people I’ve interacted with at grocery stores and food establishments have been extremely accommodating to answering (seemingly) odd questions about ingredients in the food and letting me see the packaging to identify kosher symbols.
While it may feel like you’re inconveniencing others when you ask, there’s a learning experience and exchange of information which occurs. Explaining what kosher is to the flight attendants on my Hawaiian Airlines flight definitely had its humorous moments, but it also made for a more enjoyable and satiating flight.
5. Mini-Fridge? Microwave? There May Be A Charge for That — Unless You Ask!
During a recent stay at The Fairmont Orchid on the Big Island of Hawaii, I requested a mini-fridge and microwave to store and warm up the food I brought with me, arranging this beforehand — remember: planning! — so I'd be all set to go at check-in. The front desk agent did inform me, however, that there would be an additional fee involved for using them. While many hotels will provide these two items for free, note that some do charge. Upon check-out, though, I was informed that I had been erroneously charged and that due to "medical or dietary restrictions," the hotel would not charge those fees. So, not only did I make some money back, I also learned a valuable lesson about keeping kosher while traveling: always ask.
6. Have Hotel Status? It Can Get You Kosher Food, Too
One of the best benefits to hotel credit cards and premium cards like The Platinum Card from American Express and The Business Platinum Card from American Express OPEN is that they both offer free hotel elite status. Not all elite status is created equal, but one of the best mid-tier ones is Hilton Honors Gold, which offers complimentary breakfast.
I reached out to the concierge at the hotel and was pleasantly surprised when they said they’d provide a kosher breakfast at no additional cost. Note that Hyatt properties in Hawaii have been known to provide kosher breakfast to their Globalist members as well. Be sure to email or call the property you plan to visit at least three to four weeks before your arrival so the staff can work to accommodate your request.
7. Find the 'American Aisle' at a Grocery Store
While the prices for products in the US-brand food aisles will most certainly cost twice as much as local ones, the US foods section is often your best bet for finding generic kosher items.
Let’s talk about chocolate — because who doesn’t love it? When purchased in the United States, Kit Kat, for example, bears the symbol for kosher certification. That same brand of food outside of the US may not have that required kosher symbol. Unfortunately, this means you usually can’t just pick up a candy bar from the local bodega or supermarket. You can, however, head over to the US food aisle, where you can locate US-made products with kosher symbols such as soda, candy bars and cereals.
8. Bring Food With You — and Pack it Right
Most importantly, you will need to bring food with you — how much and what will depend on the length of your trip, the amount of people in your group and what you usually enjoy. For lighter meals, stick with high protein snacks like nuts, granola, whole wheat breads, tuna and peanut butter since they’re filling, affordable and easy to store and travel with. For larger meals, there are several supermarkets and restaurants in cities like New York and Los Angeles — that have large kosher-keeping populations — which provide freshly-made (but frozen) meals. They will also pack the food for you in an insulated, airplane-ready box.
To accommodate kosher travelers, one of the most popular supermarkets on the east coast, Pomegranate, a kosher supermarket in Brooklyn, will put together fresh meals that are airplane-ready. It's known for its fair pricing, portion sizes and the quality of the food. I strongly recommend asking the folks there to pack the food in an airline-ready box — and check that box as a piece of luggage. Having done this on several occasions, my airplane-ready box has arrived at my destination many hours away unscathed and still frozen.
While it isn’t easy to plan for all your meals and snacks — especially if you’re traveling with a large group — it isn’t impossible. With the tips above, you’ll be on your way to an easier and more fulfilling travel experience.