It smells like bacon, looks like bacon, is salted like bacon and sold like bacon – but it’s not bacon. So what is it? Depends who you ask
“People are shocked there’s such a thing. It began as a niche item for upscale restaurants, but a demand from traditional and observant customers led to the launch of a line of products for the private market. Today it’s our flagship sales item,” says Ori Marmorstein, one of the owners of the Hook De Luxe charcuterie. It is here where the new marvel of the local restaurant scene has been manufactured for the past two years: strictly kosher bacon, made from lamb meat.
He claims that charcutier Eran Bick was the first Israeli to develop a local version of bacon, which more than anything else symbolizes the pig meat that is not kosher according to Jewish law but is extremely popular in the rest of the Western world.
“People have no problem with eating shrimp, mixing meat and milk – but ‘white steak’ [a Hebrew euphemism for pork products] is still taboo,” says Marmorstein.
He’s right. When the so-called pork law was enacted in 1962, forbidding the raising and slaughtering of pigs, most secular Jews had no objection. Even then-Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion – who had previously admitted to eating pork and who believed the idea of prohibiting the raising of any animal was “absurd” – supported the law in order to appease the religious parties.
The reason may be that since the dawn of Jewish history, the pig has always been considered the symbol of impurity. That may explain why even today many secular Israelis, who describe themselves as omnivores, still won't eat pork.
As opposed to its international counterpart, which is produced from parts that come from the belly, the upper chest, the back and the hind legs, in Hook the kosher bacon is produced only from the small front part of the lamb’s belly, in a strip parallel to the classic cut.
“Demand is far greater than supply,” says Marmorstein. “It’s not a product that caters to devout ultra-Orthodox people, but to traditional Jews and those who eat kosher in nonkosher restaurants,” he explains. He adds that the kosher version is, for all intents and purposes, bacon.
“Bacon is a combo of saltiness, fattiness and crispness – and that’s what people are looking for,” he says. “The taste is not the same, but it serves the same function. Many people don’t notice the difference.”
Deceiving each other
But some are all-too-aware of the difference. “There’s no such thing as kosher bacon,” says Meir Bulka, a religious food columnist. “It may look the same – the same strips of fat and meat, thinly sliced and dried. But it’s not really bacon, it’s lamb. It tastes like lamb. The advantage for producers of lamb bacon and all the various substitutes is that kashrut observers are unfamiliar with the real taste of bacon. If they were to give me a slice of a Crocs sole now and tell me it’s bacon – I’ll believe that’s the taste, because I never ate bacon from a pig.”
According to Bulka, lamb bacon actually creates a vicious circle: The producers deceive the religious community and the religious community deceives itself. “Everyone is deceiving everyone else, and they’re all benefiting from it,” he claims.
And it seems everyone really is benefiting. In recent years, many veteran restaurants have become kosher, with celebrity chefs like Eyal Shani and Yonatan Roshfeld opening eateries that cater directly to a religious clientele.
As a result, an increasing number of kosher food products are appearing on shelves and menus – substitutes for familiar foods that kashrut observers could only previously dream about.
Bulka points to the Talmud as the source for the practice of imitating foods. Yalta, the wife of Babylonian scholar Rav Nachman, said that “Whatever the Merciful one has forbidden us, he has permitted us something of equal worth.” In other words, it’s acceptable to taste forbidden things by eating similar substitutes.
In other words, if someone wants to taste meat and milk, he is allowed to eat cow udders, and someone who wants a cheeseburger can eat a hamburger with vegan cheese. “Although it’s permitted,” says Bulka, “anyone who doesn’t eat kosher knows that it’s a fake, and anyone who does – doesn’t know.”
Bulka says lamb bacon is like vegetarian meat: “Beyond the fact that it’s a gimmick, we’re making a mockery of the essence of the real food without knowing its original flavor. Soy schnitzel will never taste like calf schnitzel, and the same is true of lamb bacon. So anyone who sees food as something that also includes culture or tradition can’t bend the equation just to suit his own rules.”
He adds it’s actually “deceit and opportunism” from those who are exploiting the high demand among the religious community and seeking to make a profit at their expense. Bulka even goes so far as to call the practice “sacrilege in my eyes.”
Chef Matan Abrahams, from Tel Aviv’s Hudson Brasserie, also objects to attaching the name “bacon” to a lamb dish. “It’s like calling carobs ‘chocolate,’” he says. “First, it’s not bacon. And second, it caters to all those [observant people] who want to feel worldly.”
Still, he finds a ray of light in the growing demand for lamb bacon. “Unfortunately, due to problems with pig farming in Israel, there’s a serious shortage of bacon here. Diseases in pigpens and smaller litters have created a shortage that has led to the rising price of bacon.”
Yehonatan Borovich, the chef at the famed Tel Aviv meat restaurant M25, is of a similar opinion. “It’s not a phenomenon, it’s an invention,” he says. “But in a country where they make carpaccio from eggplant, I’m not surprised they also make bacon from lamb.”
Borovich works in a restaurant that also operates a butcher shop, and he says there’s absolutely no way of bringing lamb – no matter how much it is manipulated – to a level that even comes close to replicating the aroma of pork. On the other hand, he notes, “It gives someone who has never eaten pork a kind of reference point.”
According to Borovich, the main difference between the two products is the fat: “Lamb fat differs from pig fat in its chemical composition and its solidity at room temperature. A sheep is an animal that is significantly thinner than a pig. Therefore, the bacon produced from the lamb is also thinner, and as a result much more boring.”
Creating a unique cuisine
One chef who refuses to get so heated about the issue is Todd Aarons. He runs the kosher Crave restaurant in Jerusalem, whose menu includes many hedonistic dishes that reflect the trend for sinful culinary products – cheeseburger with vegan cheese and bacon, huge Reuben sandwiches.
Before immigrating to Israel and prior to becoming observant 20 years ago, Aarons worked in kitchens in California, some of which were not kosher. He still remembers the taste of bacon and claims he also knows how to recreate it.
“The process isn’t unfamiliar to me,” he says. “My shtick in charcuterie is the technique: I make use of all my experience with classic bacon on lamb. It’s the same method and the same process.”
He says the religious community is also interested in quality of life, to go out, have fun, and eat in restaurants that diverge from the overly familiar kosher menu. “When I became religious, I didn’t want to limit myself,” he explains. “I wanted the same taste I was familiar with.”
Aarons calls the pig and lamb “barnyard buddies.” Like Marmorstein – and to the annoyance of purists – he claims that bacon is merely a precise combination of salt, sugar, fat and smoke.
“For every nonkosher thing, you can make a kosher parallel,” he asserts. Just as sausages were originally produced only from pork, he adds, the same thing is now happening with bacon. “When there’s a lot of pork belly, the solution is to cure the leftovers and smoke them – and that’s how bacon was created.
“Therefore, if lamb belly is left over, I think it’s only natural to prepare a similar but kosher product from it,” he says.
According to Aarons, the opponents of lamb bacon are missing a significant factor: the regional element.
“It’s far more natural and connected to the place to eat lamb here rather than pork,” he says. “Although smoking and curing are very European techniques, which were designed to preserve food during cold seasons, who knows – maybe once they did something similar here with mutton?” Aaron doesn’t stop with our forefathers, and even claims that lamb bacon “is a very Israeli thing. We adopt things from here and there, and change them. When they did that in New Orleans with the Creole cuisine, a unique food was created. In my opinion, Israel will also get to that.”
Dor Cohen, a charcutier who studied the art of preparing sausages and hotdogs in Italy, wants to import a kosher version of those same foreign flavors to Israel. Five years ago, he opened the kosher food boutique Hamezaveh in Karkur (northern Israel), specializing in producing and curing meat and sausages. “I have other substitutes – goose prosciutto, for example,” he says, referring to the cured, dried and smoked goose breast that he prepares, inspired by the dish made from the hind legs of a pig.
“It’s quite similar in texture, taste and in the percentage of fat. But what can you do, it’s not the same thing,” he says about his creation. As with lamb bacon, it’s very tasty in itself – if you eat it without expecting it to be something it really isn’t.”
Although Cohen specializes in creating alternatives, he is opposed to comparing them with the products they were designed to replace. “It’s an adventure to adapt the sausage to tradition and location,” he says. “I believe that if the product is good as well as kosher, you gain from both worlds and both populations – the kashrut observers and those who eat everything. I especially like Fridays, when kippa-wearers and total atheists gather in my place. It’s very nice to see how they get to know each other and talk.”
Still, he admits that many secular customers get angry at the sight of the kosher substitutes. “People are furious when you call lamb ‘bacon,’ so we invent other names – such as ‘pacon.’” He adds that using a similar name has another benefit: “If, for example, a religious person tastes ‘bacon’ that is not made of pork and then flies to Germany and sees the same product and thinks it’s kosher, then I’ve indirectly created a misleading product,” he explains.
Amit Aharonson, restaurant critic for the weekly Kol Ha’ir and food reporter for Channel 10 News, presents a middle ground. “The only thing that’s problematic about this story is that someone who eats lamb bacon and doesn’t eat pork may think this is the taste of bacon, or that’s the function it fills,” he says.
He adds that although lamb bacon is not comparable to the original “either in taste or in texture,” it does provide a worthy solution for a cut of meat that’s not particularly popular: lamb belly.
Pork is still taboo, and many restaurateurs in nonkosher places prefer to not serve it in order “not to poke observers of tradition in the eye,” says Aharonson. “In many places they serve dried up, terribly crisp and salty pieces of meat with a strong aftertaste of lamb or mutton. So yes, it’s salty and smoked, but to say it’s bacon is simply wrong.”
So, is lamb bacon a passing fad or a solution to a culinary-religious need? Nobody has a precise answer. Whatever, in 2018 (or 5778 according to the Jewish calendar, but who’s counting?), maybe the time has come for everyone to live according to his own beliefs, in harmony with pork or lamb bacon, hamburger or tofu, schnitzel or soy, chocolate or carob. Just as long as it’s tasty.