Indian restaurant brings kosher dining to stamford
By Cindy Mindell
Chef Ramesh Masilamani knows all about kosher. The co-owner of Navaratna Vegetarian Indian Restaurant in downtown Stamford has cooked all his life, learning as a child in his grandmother’s northern Indian kitchen. He cooked for European cruise ships and Manhattan restaurants that followed the laws of kashrut. He has a lot of friends in the Stamford Jewish community who eat kosher.
So when Rabbis Danny Cohen and Elly Krimsky approached Ramesh and brother Prakesh three months ago to discuss kosher certification, it was a relatively easy decision. Cohen, of Congregation Agudath Sholom, and Krimsky, of the Young Israel of Stamford, represent the Vaad Hakashrut of Fairfield County.
By that time, the brothers had heard the question a lot from Jewish customers: Why don’t you go kosher? Representative from the Stamford Kosher Activists Committee (SKAC) explained the logistics of certification and when the owners expressed interest, the rabbis made their visit.
They consulted with Rabbi Jacob Mendelson of Congregation Bikur Cholim in Bridgeport, who recommended Rabbi Zushe Blech of Monsey, N.Y., a leading expert in modern kosher food production and technology. Blech researched the sources and manufacturing processes of the spices used in the kitchen, many of them imported from abroad. Because the restaurant is vegetarian, the kashering and subsequent supervision are relatively straightforward, Cohen says.
“The biggest real issue is that the rabbis decreed centuries ago that we don’t eat food made by a non-Jew,” Cohen says. “Many use a leniency: if the Jew participates in the cooking process, even throwing one coal onto the cooking fire, he can eat the food.”
The modern parallel is turning on a pilot light, so the Vaad rigged up and lit a permanent pilot light, and is responsible for relighting it if it goes out.
“For us, it wasn’t about money-making,” says Ramesh of the decision. “God made me a chef, and I want to make good and healthy food for everybody. A lot of Indian people also like pure vegetarian food.”
“There’s a good feeling in the restaurant; you see Jews with yarmulkes and Indians dining together,” Cohen says. “People have come from all over because it’s really exciting.”
One proviso in the supervision is that one of the rabbis will pop in on a Shabbat, as well as during the week. Because the restaurant is owned by non-Jews and the stoves are controlled via the special pilot light, it can be open every day. Stamford is home to a considerable Orthodox Jewish community, but lacks kosher restaurants. The problem, Cohen says, is critical mass. “In order for a kosher restaurant to stay open, if it’s owned by a Jew, it has to close on Shabbat, and retail does better on the weekend, so you lose a day of business.”
“As rabbis, we’re committed to trying to make things work religiously in the community,” says Cohen This is just the first of what the Vaad hopes will be a growing palette of kosher dining options, he says.
Says Krimsky: “For Stamford, which is such a diverse and open community, it’s of particular significance that the newest kosher restaurant isn’t a deli or a pizza shop, but is Indian, with food so different and unique and foreign from what we’re used to eating.”
Photo: At the newly kosher Navaratna Restaurant (left to right): Owner Ramesh Masilamani, Rabbi Zushe Blech, Rabbi Elly Krimsky, Rabbi Danny Cohen, and owner Prakesh Masilamani.