Leah Carnow ’12 is currently studying abroad in Alicante, Spain.
I sit at a table in a truck stop restaurant and listen as my slightly chubby waiter lists the menu options: pork or pork. I have been on a bus for three hours already with another nine hours of travel to go, and I need some dinner. “Do you have anything else?” I ask.
He looks annoyed but answers, “Chicken.”
“Great,” I sigh. “I’ll take that.”
Welcome to Spain, the country where every part of a pig is food, from the ears to the feet; where smoked pork legs (that’s ham for all of you who have never seen where it comes from) hang like bizarre icicles from supermarket ceilings; and where pieces of sausages lazily float to the surface in so-called vegetarian soups. Before coming to Spain, I considered putting my kosher lifestyle on hold for four months so that I could try new foods. The first days of orientation as I looked at the plates of jamón serrano sliced paper thin alongside the colorful plates of seafood paella, I thought, it would be so easy to eat that. All I have to do is taste it. Instead I ate my salads and vegetable paella without complaining, but I felt an unfamiliar sensation of missing out.
After moving into my homestay a few days later, I realized that I would never again have to worry about keeping kosher in Spain. My wonderful host mom, Carmela, doesn’t eat pork or shellfish, not because she’s kosher, but she might as well be. I do eat meat, as long as it’s from a kosher animal and not prepared with dairy. Luckily Spanish cooking doesn’t use milk products; smothering food in cream sauces or cheese is unheard of. Instead of meat though, Carmela and I often eat fish—tuna, hake, sardines, etc. Spain is known for its seafood and we’re lucky to live in a coastal city where fish is fresh, affordable, and delicious. We also eat a wide variety of vegetarian foods, including tortillas, vegetable soups, spinach with raisins and pinenuts, and pasta with tomato sauce, peppers, and onions.
That being said, keeping kosher does make for some interesting meals, since I eat vegetarian food most of the time when I go out to eat. Even though vegetarians are understood, there still aren’t many options in most restaurants. Here is a menu from a tapas bar I ate at in Santiago de Compostela, Galicia (see picture).
Translation of menu in order: octopus, pig’s ear, cheese, mussels in vinaigrette, steamed mussels, cockles, anchovies, ham, ham, homemade pork sausage, homemade pork sausage fried or in wine, fried pork skins, meat empanada, peppers, olives, bread.
What I ate: Cheese, anchovies, peppers, and bread, all accompanied by really good wine. It seems kind of pathetic, but I loved that meal.
Oh, and you should have seen the sandwich options on the other side: ham, cheese, ham, ham, ham, ham, sausage, and ham. Sometimes my life comes straight out of the Monty Python spam skit. But I don’t like HAM!
My advice for traveling or studying abroad anywhere: learn as many words as you can, for both foods you can eat and foods you can’t, whatever your dietary restrictions (or bring a great pocket dictionary). Once you’ve figured out what you can eat, taste everything! If you’re not sure about something, ask.
Halfway into my semester, I have no regrets about choosing to keep kosher in Spain. Yes I have to work hard sometimes to find out ingredients in various foods and I have to say no to certain dishes every now and then, but it enables me to stay healthy, grateful, and mindful of what I’m eating—all reasons that I keep kosher when I’m home. Keeping kosher in Spain has an added bonus as well—it means that I always have an excuse to ask questions about food and in response, I get a lot of thought-provoking questions about what kosher is, what it means to me, and other questions about Judaism. I am passionate about many things, two of which are food and Judaism. By letting people know that I keep kosher, I get to share my passions with new friends, practice my Spanish, AND learn about Spanish gastronomy and religious history, all at the same time. And as the pictures show, I’ve also been eating some homemade and incredible Spanish food.