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Seoul Food in the Holy Land

When Ziporah Rothkopf left Korea, she changed her name, religion, and way of life. But she took her palate with her.

by
Sara Toth Stub
November 20, 2015
Sara Toth Stub
Ziporah RothkopfSara Toth Stub
Sara Toth Stub
Ziporah RothkopfSara Toth Stub

Among the items Ziporah Rothkopf brings home to Jerusalem from her native South Korea each year are locally grown chili peppers, at least 10 pounds of them. She takes a day out of her annual visit to her elderly mother to travel to a farm outside of Seoul to pick up hundreds of long, thin, sun-dried red peppers. She then spends another day grinding them into powder before packing them into her luggage.

For her, this arduous undertaking has meant she could prepare her own kosher Korean food, since there is no packaged gochugaru, or Korean pepper powder—the essential sweet and spicy base to the country’s cuisine–currently made under rabbinical supervision.

“Kosher really limits you,” said Rothkopf, who has been observing Jewish dietary restrictions since she converted in 1980, after immigrating to the United States. “I’ve done this for 35 years, so I always have a freezer full of pepper powder. But it’s a lot of work.”

But now those laborious days have come to an end: In response to Rothkopf’s tireless efforts, OK Kosher, one of the world’s largest kashrut supervision agencies, has just given its approval to Alali Food Company to start making kosher-certified gochugaru and five other essential Korean foods. Alali and Daesang Corporation, which makes kimchi, or fermented vegetables, probably the best-known Korean food, are the first two producers of ready-to-eat kosher food in South Korea. They join about three dozen other Korean food companies thathave already received OK’s certification and are selling kosher flavors, extracts, food colorings, and other products used in the food industry generally.

For Rothkopf, OK’s input at Alali is a testament to her quest to blend her Korean and Jewish identities. On a larger scale, it represents food companies’ efforts to meet growing consumer demand for kosher Asian food.

Rothkopf will introduce the newly certified products to the Israeli market at the South Korean embassy’s booth in November at the annual Israfood expo in Tel Aviv, the main event for the Israeli food and hospitality industry. She hopes this will kickstart business for KOKO Food, an importing company she has just formed to bring these products to Israel and to the United States.

It’s one of many steps Rothkopf has taken to bring Korean food to her adopted homeland. In 2014, she opened Seoul House, a Korean café near her home in Jerusalem’s Old City, but her journey from Seoul, where she was born as Kim Bongja, to Jerusalem was long and winding.

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Raised in an intellectual, elite Buddhist family in Seoul, where her father worked as a journalist, Rothkopf fled to the United States in her early 20s after leaving an unfaithful husband.

“I lost everything in my divorce, I lost my two kids, I had to start a new life,” Rothkopf says. “I really thought I needed to go out and find a different world. I wanted to find a world where there was justice.” She had no idea that this would lead her to a religion that is nearly nonexistent in Korea, except among foreign executives, U.S. military personnel, and tourists. Until 2008, Korea did not even have a Chabad house, one of the outposts, run by Lubavitcher Jews, known for serving Jews in far-flung places.

At the time of her divorce, Rothkopf worked at a travel agency in Seoul. It was the 1970s, a time of political turbulence in the region. She wanted to get out of the country, so she used tourist industry connections to secure a passport and a visa to the United States—both documents that were hard to come by. In the States she found work as a blackjack dealer in Las Vegas.

Shortly after her arrival, Rothkopf flew to New York to visit a childhood friend who had also immigrated and was studying medicine at a Manhattan hospital. Through this friend she met Moshe Rothkopf, an Orthodox ophthalmologist completing his residency. Rothkopf lived in the same apartment building as her friend and—through she calls it divine intervention—the future couple ran into one another in the laundry room, where some kind of spark ignited.

“He was the first Jew I ever met,” Rothkopf said, and he introduced her to the Hasidic, song-fueled synagogue of Shlomo Carlebach, where she found the restoration—if not yet the new identity—she craved. “It was very healing,” she said. She found that observance transformed ordinary activities, like eating, into sacred experiences.

Within a couple of years she converted and married Moshe. For the next three decades, much of her time was consumed with bringing up two daughters, running her husband’s medical practice in New Jersey, and cooking Korean-influenced food for thousands of Shabbat guests in their Lakewood, New Jersey, home, where they hosted a weekly song-filled Carlebach minyan.

Two years ago, Rothkopf stopped running her husband’s practice, and the couple began splitting their time between Jerusalem and New Jersey. Rothkopf then finally dedicated herself to the long-simmering goal of obtaining kosher certification for Korean food. She visited factories all over South Korea, even flying to one of its small islands to see how dried and ground sweet potatoes are turned into the noodles used in chap chae, a popular stir-fry.

In an eastern province, she discovered Alali, which relies mainly on plant-based ingredients. It struck her as a suitable place to produce kosher pepper powder, and she hired OK Kosher to oversee certification. Aryeh Taub, rabbi and project manager in OK Kosher’s China department, gave it the OK after Alali agreed to stop using a man-made enzyme that sped up soybean fermentation. Now the company allows food to ferment on its own in a humid room. It’s “the traditional way,” Taub said.

For Seoul House, the imminent arrival of these new foods means Rothkopf can bulk up the menu. She will be able to offer more meat-based dishes that call for gochugaru, red-pepper paste, fermented soybean paste, and Korean soy sauce, a saltier version than the Japanese variety and wheat-free.

Food experts say Rothkopf has created a potentially lucrative niche. The kosher market in the United States and Israel has become “more gourmet,” in recent years according to Menachem Lubinsky, editor-in-chief of Kosher Today. Consumers are showing interest in Asian food beyond basic Chinese, which has been popular for decades.

“The kosher market is very receptive to new, exotic Asian foods, so there is a great opportunity for importers of products from places like Korea,” Lubinsky said. Numbers bear that out. The kosher retail market has seen dramatic growth in the United States, expanding about 13 percent annually since 2010, and is now worth about $12.5 billion, according to a report by Lubicom Marketing Consulting. Though there is no official data on how much of that market is dominated by Asian food, Lubinsky estimated it’s between 5 and 10 percent.

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In Israel, even non-kosher Korean food is rare. There is nothing for sale in grocery stores, and the few Korean restaurants that have opened in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem over the years have not endured. That may soon change.

Ronit Vered, food columnist at Haaretz, said Israelis are more receptive nowadays to diverse cuisine, including Korean. Both Jerusalem and Tel Aviv have seen a recent boom in Asian restaurants mostly opened by Israelis who fell in love with these cuisines of the Far East while traveling in the region and eating local fare. “Israel has been going through a culinary revolution, and the tastes for things from the outside is growing,” Vered said. “It’s a kind of maturation.”

This trend is evident from the steady stream of customers at Seoul House.

It sits under one of the ubiquitous ancient archways, on a street just above the Cardo, the famed Roman marketplace now lined with souvenir, art, and Judaica shops. The café’s stone facade and arched doorway blend in with the entrances to the synagogues and houses that flank it on both sides. Six employees serve tea, kimchi fermented on site, and gimbap, the Korean version of sushi.

On a recent morning, Seoul House’s door was propped open, and the stereo played Carlebach. Sitting at a wooden table, Rothkopf said it was at Carlebach’s synagogue in New York in the late 1970s where she first prepared kosher Korean food for the masses and began to blend her Korean past and Jewish future.

“I have fed thousands and thousands of people, starting from Rav Shlomo’s kitchen,” Rothkopf recalled. “I always told myself from the moment I started keeping kosher that someday I would get the authentic Korean sauces certified. It was always, someday, someday I will do it.”

Though that someday is here, for Rothkopf, the dream goes beyond a successful restaurant. It’s about nurturing her dual identity.

She has started work on her next project: growing Asian vegetables in Israel. Recently, Rothkopf bought an old chicken coop on a nearby moshav, where she plans to cultivate Napa cabbage aquaponically to guarantee it will be bug-free and kosher-friendly. “These foods are all very healthy and healing,” Rothkopf said. “This is my way of bringing light.”

“I’ve spent tens of thousands of dollars,” Rothkopf said. “I’ve lost count of how much. But this is one of the highlights of my life. It took a long time, but it is really a gift from God.”

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Sara Toth Stub is a Jerusalem-based American journalist who has written for The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones Newswires, Associated Press, and other publications.

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