The surprising flavor of Kosher in the Northwest

Joy Somanna takes to-go orders during the lunch rush at Pabla in Renton. (Photo by Anna Goren)
Joy Somanna takes to-go orders during the lunch rush at Pabla in Renton. (Photo by Anna Goren)

As it turns out, the relationship between Jews and ethnic food runs deeper than just Chinese food on Christmas.

At Pabla, a sleepy Indian buffet tucked into a strip mall in Downtown Renton, the lunch rush brings in the knowing nods of regulars — African Muslims in long tunics, South Asian Boeing engineers on their lunch breaks, a handful of dreaded vegans, and Orthodox Jews.

At first glance, the latter might seem to be the most out of place, with their kippahs clipped to their heads, a sign of piety in the Jewish faith that usually means strict adherence to kosher food laws.

But the Orthodox community come from far and wide — Seward Park, Mercer Island, and even Portland — to eat at one of the few places with the stamp of kosher approval by the Seattle Va’ad Harabanim.

The Va’ad functions as a sort of regulation agency for the Jewish community, a remnant of a biblical judicial system that dealt with Jewish legal disputes. In strict observance of kashrut, or kosher laws, Jews will only eat foods certified by the Va’ad, and approved restaurants are few and far between — especially in the Northwest.

The lunch buffet at Pabla, which offers vegetarian versions of Punjabi-style dishes from the north of India. (Photo by Anna Goren).
The lunch buffet at Pabla, which offers vegetarian versions of Punjabi-style dishes from the north of India. (Photo by Anna Goren).

When brothers Jaswinder and Hanek Pabla arrived in Seattle from California, they never imagined that their establishments would soon be a favorite for the Orthodox Jewish community.

They were coming from long line of Sikh cooks in the Indian state of Punjab, and the stresses of running a restaurant didn’t seem half as daunting as the challenge of trying to sell vegetarianism to Americans.

Lucky for them, as their business grew into the early 2000’s, vegetarianism trended along with them.

“When we came here, we thought that Americans must eat meat,” explains Hanek. Like many Indians, their conceptions of American culture and cuisine came from TV, where meat and potatoes reigned.

“In the beginning, it was difficult,” says manager and friend of the brothers, Joy Somanna. “People in America, they think of Indian food as butter chicken and tandoori, and really spicy.” he says. “This is not our food.”

(Learn more about Indian regional cuisine available in the Seattle area here)

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Hanek hand-makes a huge display of Indian sweets, many of them made with paneer that they switched to making in-house to adhere to kosher rules. (Photo by Anna Goren).

While you’ll often hear Seattlelites pulling a Macklemore and insisting they have “hella good Jewish homies,” the city of 40,000 Jews doesn’t hold a candle to epicenters like New York or Los Angeles, where Jewish food and culture is ubiquitous. L.A.’s Pico Blvd. is lined with kosher restaurants in a Jewish Disneyland of cuisines, with yiddish-infused names like ‘Pizza Megillah’ and ‘Meshugah Sushi’.

Over the years, various Jews from the community have tried their hand at opening up restaurants, from pizza places to delis to upscale fine dining, but most have only stayed open for a few years.

“The main problem is the meat and the dairy — it’s very expensive,” says Rivy Kletenik, teacher and principal at Seattle Hebrew Academy, whose husband Rabbi Kletenik is the head of the Va’ad.

While the most well-known kashrut laws forbid consumption of pork and shellfish, they also prohibit the mixing of meat and milk products. And similar to Islamic rules about halal food preparation, they outline detailed guidelines for ethical meat preparation and animal slaughter.

As costs of meat and dairy continue to rise, catering to the the niche market of kosher foods has become even more expensive, especially when you factor in the costs of running the thorough certification program.

Kosher sahgiach at Pabla
Every day a mashgiach — or supervisor — comes to inspect the kitchen and freezer sections to be sure the establishment is keeping up with kosher practices. (Photo by Anna Goren).

So oddly enough, the two most successful kosher restaurants in our region are still Pabla and Bamboo Garden, a vegetarian Chinese restaurant in Queen Anne that found it’s way to kosher certification through the same serendipitous route.

Most Jews in the greater Seattle area do not keep kosher, but those who do can find observant Judaism in the Pacific Northwest challenging.

A small community can also have its benefits. In robust Orthodox neighborhoods like Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn and the Mile End in Montreal, there are few places where the more populous ultra-orthodox interact with their neighbors (in both cases, hipsters).

But in Seattle, restaurants like Pabla are good examples of where our diverse communities actually encounter one another.

And lots of people, it seems, still want good vegetarian fare, kosher or not.

Hanek flips through a photo album of the first orthodox Jewish wedding in Portland catered by Pabla. The album is featured prominently upon entering, titled 'Jewish Wedding with Pabla Indian Cuisine.' (Photo by Anna Goren)
Hanek flips through a photo album of the first orthodox Jewish wedding in Portland catered by Pabla. The album is featured prominently upon entering, titled ‘Jewish Wedding with Pabla Indian Cuisine’. (Photo by Anna Goren)

Pabla first opened downtown in 1995 serving meat and alcohol, hoping to cater to the business lunch crowd with a conception of ‘typical’ Indian food. But soon the brothers decided to open in Renton, seizing the opportunity to both catch the Boeing lunch crowd and meet the underserved Sikhs and Hindus.

The Renton restaurant is not far south of Seward Park, where 90% of the observant Jewish community in Seattle lives. Pabla began to see Jewish customers who were willing to bend the rules to eat out at non-kosher restaurants, as long as they did not serve meat. This occurrence mirrors a shift in kosher culture that has continued to gain momentum with the onset of ‘eco-kashrut’, a younger movement less concerned with ancient interpretations of Bible passages, and more with keeping up with the ethical and health concerns of the day.

Taking on the question of ‘what is kosher?’ into their own hands, these customers decided that a purely vegetarian restaurant fit the bill just fine. They encouraged the brothers to get their restaurant certified by the Va’ad, thinking of the market they could corner.

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(Photo by Anna Goren).

Dalya Lovy, who grew up in a kosher family in Seward Park, says that until college she didn’t realize that many American families made an occasion of going out to eat, because her family almost never did due to the lack of Va’ad certified options. For special occasions, however, Bamboo Garden and Pabla were staples.

“You’d go into this Chinese restaurant outside the neighborhood and run into everyone from synagogue,” she recalls.

Eventually the demand from the Jewish community became so high that the Pabla brothers opened a prepared foods sections, so that on the way to and from the airport, customers could take frozen meals on trips to places where kosher food would be hard or impossible to find. Lovy recalls a tradition evolving among her peers of taking friends there, straight from airport.

“It was a blessing that we got introduced to the kosher people,” laughs Hanek, “this is their place.”

The year they got certified as kosher, 2001, was their most profitable year yet.

Hard pressed to find a decent bagel in town, Jews can feel left wanting in Seattle. Perhaps we ought to eat more Indian.

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