Food and religion mix deliciously in local restaurants that adhere to kosher, halal, and Jainist standards
In the sacred texts of religions worldwide, matters of the spirit come first, of course. Not far behind, though, are matters of food. Centuries ago, Deuteronomy, the final book in the Torah, and Al-Ma’ida, the fifth chapter of the Quran, laid out guidelines for properly preparing food in the Jewish and Islamic traditions. Likewise, Jainism, also stretching back millennia, has specific strictures for its adherents. All three traditions are becoming increasingly available for diners in the Las Vegas Valley.
MODERN KOSHER AT ANISE TAPAS & GRILL
Most non-Jewish Americans have at least heard of kosher cuisine, even if it’s just from seeing products in grocery stores. The top-level rules are widely known, too: no pork or shellfish.
But that’s just the beginning. In fact, every time Sarit Bitton, owner of Anise Tapas & Grill (3100 S. Durango Drive, anisetapas.com), shops for ingredients, she consults a checklist of some 50 certification symbols her restaurant needs to follow according to strict Orthodox Jewish dining standards.
“This has everything to the nitty-gritty of, ‘Is salt kosher? Is oil kosher?’” Bitton says. It’s not easy to keep her menus appropriate for the observant — not only the small but growing local population of Orthodox followers, but many visitors from New York and L.A., as well — so she has a rabbi on staff to make sure all of Anise’s dishes abide by the rules.
As a culinary entrepreneur, Bitton knows that the full scope of kosher food is mysterious to many Las Vegans. (There are fewer than 10 kosher restaurants in the valley.) That’s led her to market Anise with a light touch. “We have no signage here saying ‘kosher,’ and I do that on purpose, because I don’t want people to feel excluded. A lot of people have a stigma of what kosher is,” she says. “A lot of people don’t want to go out of their comfort zone.”
Bitton says her soft-sell approach is inspired by Las Vegas’ Chinatown district, which slowly built an audience outside the Asian community. “That’s what Anise does ... we’re bringing in the street flavors of old Morocco, old Israeli traditions, but we’re making them more inviting to the public.”
But the ancient dietary laws still preside, even as she presents a modern-minded tableau of small plates. “We have no shellfish, no dairy.” Kosher law prohibits preparing or serving meat and dairy together; each requires completely separate equipment, serving ware, and table settings. It’s theoretically possible to do both under one roof, but very complicated. “You have to choose meat or dairy,” she says. “I chose meat.”
This has required some ingenuity on her part. “What if I made this amazing shawarma, which is like a gyro, or a lamb kebab — the non-Jewish people are really going to want their yogurt,” Bitton says. “They’re going to be like, ‘Wait, where’s my tzatziki?’ That’s where I started creating nondairy substitutes. They don’t even know the difference.”
The secret to that tzatziki? Tofutti sour cream. “We make it with fresh dill, cucumbers, and garlic,” she says. “It tastes like the real thing.”
HALAL AT SHIRAZ
Halal cuisine is less familiar to most non-Muslim Southern Nevadans, but the term can certainly be seen about town on restaurant and market signs. It has similarities to kosher treatments, such as pork being forbidden.
Properly preparing meat is a focus of halal cuisine, says Jainine Jaffer, executive chef at Shiraz (2575 S. Decatur Blvd., shirazrestaurant.com), a new restaurant serving Persian, Pakistani, and Indian dishes. A glimpse at its extensive menu would include Persian-style, saffron-infused lamb shank, and Pakistani chicken karahi, a succulent stew filled with chili, onion, tomato, garlic, and spices.
“An animal must be alive and not maimed, diseased, or injured,” Jaffer says of the butchery process. “The slaughter must be performed by an adult Muslim who invokes the name of Allah by reciting Bismillah-ir-rahman-ir-rahim: In the name of Allah, most gracious, most merciful.” Halal tradition insists that animals be kept as calm as possible in their final moments, and then dispatched quickly and as painlessly as possible. Further, she welcomes that fact that halal meats must come from animals raised without steroids, growth hormones, or antibiotics.
“The halal meat that we purchase and consume is a much healthier product overall,” says Jaffer, who began following a halal diet two years ago for religious and health reasons. “I have not experienced the digestive issues that I previously did, and I truly feel that you can taste the difference in the cleanness of the meats.”
Shiraz’s halal menu has led to a thriving business catering receptions for Persian, Pakistani, Indian, and even Afghan families, pockets of the community with higher percentages of Muslim adherents.
JAINISM AT MINT INDIAN BISTRO
On the menus of some of the many restaurants in town serving Indian food, a lesser-known religious cuisine makes itself known with a capital letter — “J” for Jainism. Adherents of the ancient faith are strictly vegetarian, and then some: Under Jainism’s principle of ahimsa, a far-reaching form of nonviolence, even underground vegetables and tubers, such as carrots, potatoes, onions, and garlic are forbidden, as the plant is killed when harvested, and insects and microorganisms that rely on their roots might be harmed in the harvest, too.
It can be difficult for members of the Jain community to find acceptable places to eat in Las Vegas. But a few restaurateurs, like Kris Parikh, the owner of the city’s two Mint Indian Bistros (730 E. Flamingo Road and 4246 S. Durango Drive; mintbistro.com), have filled that void.
“We denote every single item on our menu that is Jain,” Parikh says. “That way our guests coming in are comfortable, and say, ‘Hey, these guys know what they’re doing.’” Jain-friendly dishes include idli, fried spongy rice cakes served with coconut chutney; dal, a lentil soup; and saag paneer, fresh cheese in a thick spinach stew.
Early summer is a big window for Jain tourism in Las Vegas, as many members of the faith work in India’s diamond industry and visit town for the JCK jewelry convention. It used to be difficult for them to find restaurants before Mint and a few other eateries adapted their menus.
In Mint’s kitchen, his chefs create base sauces that adhere to Jain precepts. “We don’t add garlic and onion into everything; we have our bases laid down,” Parikh says. “Everything is made fresh, so when you order anything from the menu, let’s say our chana masala, that can be made Jain because it’s only tomato-based.” Those entrées can be augmented with non-Jain ingredients — like onions and meat — for other diners, while assuring Jain guests that their choices are proper and fit.