The Jewish love affair with Chinese food
According to a venerable borsht-circuit gag, the Jewish civilization began in 3,000 B.C., and the Chinese civilization began in 2,000 B.C., which proves that Jews can exist without eating Chinese food. The historical accuracy may be flawed, but the joke does underscore the curious passion that American Jews have developed for the Chinese cuisine.
That passion, of course, is shared by much of the Occidental world. The distinctive savoriness and varied textures of Chinese food, its sensual appeal, and the unique cooking techniques employed in Chinese kitchens to accentuate flavors and aromas have excited the Western palate and made Chinese cooking universally popular. But nowhere is the infatuation with the Chinese cuisine more intense than in the American Jewish community.
Chinese restaurateurs recognize this phenomenon, and their establishments have proliferated in the U.S. wherever there is a sizable Jewish population. The Chinese restaurant has become a durable fixture in most Jewish neighborhoods, almost as commonplace as a kosher butcher shop. The Jewish enchantment with Chinese food has also surfaced in Israel, where Chinese restaurants now compete against falafel stands, European-style delicatessens, and other outlets of traditional Jewish cooking.
Actually, there is no single standard Jewish cuisine. Historically, Jews have borrowed the foods of the people among whom they dwell, modified in each case by the requirements of kashrut, the religious dietary laws. As a result, there are various styles of "Jewish cooking": Eastern- and Central-European Ashkenazi types such as Russian-Jewish, Hungarian-Jewish and Romanian-Jewish, plus the Mediterranean or Sephardi-Jewish style of cooking.
Chinese cooking features ingredients and techniques that are alien to each of these. For example, the quick-searing and stir-frying cooking methods perfected by the Chinese create new dimensions of taste wholly dissimilar to the potted and stewed meats and vegetables with which most Jews are familiar. The subtle but profound nuances of flavor and aroma emphasized in Chinese food, the exotic vegetables and condiments, and the preoccupation with the textural effects and color of food are virtually unknown in the Jewish kitchen.
And yet the Jew finds that the lure of the exotic is eased by the touch of the familiar in the Chinese cuisine. Most significant, the Chinese rarely combine dairy and meat products, a practice prohibited by religious Jewish dietary laws. Omnipresent pots of tea invariably grace the tables of both the Chinese and the Jews. The two cuisines favor such common dishes as chicken broth with rice or noodles, and--with the exception of the Szechuan and Hunanese styles--both have a preference for mild seasonings.
Kreplach, a triangular or square dumpling containing chopped meat and usually served in soup, which is a popular Eastern-European Jewish delicacy, is a first cousin to wontons, a Cantonese miniature dumpling used in soup or is deep-fried and eaten as a snack. The taste of stuffed cabbage, another Eastern-European Jewish favorite, resembles the array of sweet and sour dishes prepared by the Chinese. In addition, the noodles or luckshen, which figure prominently in Jewish food, have a counterpart in Chinese lo mein.
Going beyond considerations of the table, those seeking explanations for the Jewish passion for Chinese food might find special meanings in certain cultural values shared by both peoples: the strong family structure, the respect for learning, the powerful work ethic.
There are even intriguing historical links between the Chinese and the Jews. The first Jews, probably merchants from Persia, visited and settled in China around the year 1,000. Their descendants, Oriental in appearance and bearing Chinese names, continued to practice the Jewish religion. In the 13th Century, Marco Polo found several influential Jews at the court of Kubla Khan.
Four centuries later, a Jewish mandarin rebuilt a synagogue in the city of Kaifeng, which had been originally constructed hundreds of years earlier. Built like two adjacent Buddhist temples, the synagogue fell into disuse as the community disappeared during the 18th and 19th Centuries. An exquisite model of the Kaifeng synagogue now stands in Beit Hafutzot, the Museum of the Diaspora in Tel Aviv.
Although such bits of historical and sociological evidence demonstrate that there is a cultural affinity between the Chinese and Jewish peoples, it is highly unlikely that any of these factors have had a profound culinary impact. The Jewish love for Chinese food is essentially an American phenomenon. It has probably been fostered by the ease with which the intricacies of the Chinese cuisine can be adapted to religious Jewish dietary rules.