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Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Stalking the Elusive Kosher Cheeseburger

A kosher cheeseburger is a mythical beast, almost perfectly oxymoronic. Observing Jews cannot have milk with meat. A cheeseburger is the epitome of the code's violation.

Ingenious humans know that there is an answer for every problem. Just put quotes around "meat" or "cheese" and voilĂ ! A substitute for the real thing that satisfies all technicalities.

Except, perhaps, for the one of taste. Real cheese on meatless patties won't work for vegans or the dairy allergic, and for many of the rest of us is mostly a waste of real cheese.

Soy cheese on top of real beef is also a nonstarter for many. The flavors don't meld together.

Unless, of course, you happen to be a New York chef with the proper industrial-strength equipment to grab flavor by its chemical feet and dangle it slowly over a fire.

That's the story of Effie Nagar, owner of Talia’s Steakhouse on New York's Upper West Side, who experimented with soy cheese to the point where he is now advertising New York's first kosher cheeseburger. (I have my doubts that no one's thought of this before, but puffery in the restaurant business goes back before time and is even legal.)

Peri Grabin Leong wrote about Nagar in the NY Blueprint, the urban Jewish event guide.

After many attempts to melt the cheese, they found the right temperature in a 1950 degree (F) broiler. A broiler so hot it can cook a steak in minutes. After taking my order (Effie recommended mozzarella over American cheese) Effie took me into the kitchen and offered me a taste of the soy cheese. I overcame my natural fear of fake cheese to find that I was right... it doesn’t taste like cheese. As the chef placed my burger back in the broiler I watched the cheese melt over it (yes, very impressive for soy). He placed it on a toasted bun topped with lettuce, tomato, red onion and pickles and I walked my burger back to my table.

Like myself, Effie, had never had a cheeseburger before, so he brought some non-Jewish friends to try out his new burger and they loved it. He told me that he’s had some lactose intolerant, non-kosher, customers order the burger. “It’s interesting for them too. It’s the only place they can have [a cheeseburger]. Show me another place [in Manhattan]” he said “I don’t know of one."

Ingenuity like this shouldn't be left to mere restaurant-owning chefs. Every one of us who have to avoid some food in our diets should be looking at experimental variations. Why deprive ourselves? Find the best foods for your personal tastes and indulge.

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