Tuesday, August 29, 2006

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.


Anonymous Joared said...

I think this bit of Chinese/Jewish food lore is fascinating. Given my proclivity for Chinese food, am now wondering, again, if somehow, somewhere, I have Jewish heritage in my background. ;-)

At various times in my young life I fantasized about a heritage that might be Scottish, American Native Indian, or Jewish. Gee, I wonder???

Wednesday, August 30, 2006 8:42:00 PM  
Blogger saz said...

Mort - Who knew? I live in such an ethnically mixed area that everyone routinely goes to a variety of different ethnic restaurants and I never noticed this before.

Love the history lesson too - another thing I didn't know.

Friday, September 01, 2006 12:21:00 PM  
Blogger Samela said...

Reading your CV, Mort, it seems you have been everything but the food writer. Nothing like stretching the wings in retirement, I always say. And isn't this medium just the ticket for retired and/or frustrated journalists!

Saturday, September 02, 2006 10:19:00 AM  
Blogger Joe Mama said...

But why is it that you never see Chinese people in a Delicatessen?

Sunday, September 03, 2006 5:21:00 AM  
Blogger Ginnie said...

As always, your post is provocative and very interesting. My middle sister married a Jewish boy and he was disowned because of it. When his parents passed away they left 1/2 of everything to his sister Roz and the other half to his 3 children...but nothing for him! He introduced me to Jewish cooking and some of it I like very much...better than Chinese, actually.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006 1:44:00 PM  
Blogger Mortart said...

To Ginnie:
Your brother-in-law's Jewish parents were bigots. As you should know, bigots come in all sizes, shapes and persuasions.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006 2:56:00 PM  
Blogger Ginnie said...

You are so right, Mortart...and, although my brother-in-law was saddened by the whole thing, it was the parents that missed out.
I guess bigotry comes in many forms.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006 4:15:00 PM  
Anonymous Rhea said...

Being Jewish, I can attest to the fact that you are absolutely correct! Jewish people ADORE Chinese food. I heard a rumor once that Chinese restaurants check the Jewish population in an area before setting up shop. As a kid, my family kept Kosher at home. But guess what? You could find us eating at a Chinese restaurant at least once a week. I loved one of your commenter's questions: Why don't you see Chinese folks in delis?

Saturday, September 09, 2006 9:30:00 AM  
Blogger Ruth said...

In the rare book room at Hebrew Union College library in Cincinnati, OH, I saw a prayerbook that had come from a Chinese synagogue. In the back was a tally of the congregants, Hebrew names on one side, their Chinese names on the other.

One other thought about Jews and Chinese food: until very recently, what other restaurants were likely to be open on Dec 25, when Jews have the day off from work, and no religious duties? I know lots of Jews for whom Kung Pao is the Dec 25 "tradition."

As always, Mort, you are thought-provoking and entertaining!

Monday, September 11, 2006 2:03:00 AM  
Anonymous naomi dagen bloom said...

a number of years ago, an urban planner commented, "the edges of a jewish neighborhood are demarcated by chinese restaurants." some speculate this is about the lure of non-kosher delicacies such as spare ribs and lobster.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006 1:10:00 PM  
Blogger haibo said...

to ginnie:
I am a Chinese man, invite you to China mainland to taste really Chinese delicious food.
You must will find it better than Jew's.
Correct:Chinese civilization began in 5,000 B.C

My Cave -- SEROs & Trade

Tuesday, March 18, 2008 4:35:00 AM  
Anonymous jeff said...

I can see why the jews like chinese food. I cant think of a single chinese dish with dairy. The chinese are known to not be anti semetic. In the early days of chinese and jewish immigration they lived side by side. The chinese restauraunts are open on christmas and the jews have nothing to do on christmas.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008 11:09:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, I'm so surprised by this article, I thought it was the opposite. I love Chinese delicacy (I'm from Hong Kong), and most of them are totally Not Kosher. Among my favourite would be stripped pork ears marinated in spices. Hong Kongers eat a lot of pork, because it's more mutable than beef...in Canada, chickens have been pre-frozen and has less flavour, in HK, the bird flu curbed that love a lot...

I also love the Vienamese Pho, which has tendons which gives it the thickness. A lot of Chinese delicacies have tendons in it.

I was googling for Chinese delicacy and Kosher, to see what kind of Chinese /delicacy/ is kosher. It's fine as long as there is no pork, no tendons, no mixing of milk and dairy, no shellfish eh? Is Octopus okay?

- Georgia L

Saturday, September 27, 2008 12:07:00 PM  
Blogger Mortart said...

I'll have to seek rabbinical advice about octopus.

Saturday, September 27, 2008 12:28:00 PM  
Blogger Modern Girl said...

Octopus isn't kosher.

My boyfriend's family eat Chinese once every two weeks. They just instruct the staff to leave out pork, shrimp and other seafood. Other than that, they are good to go. A lot of things, like chow mein can be modified to exclude the shrimp and to just have the chicken, and that's what they do.

My Jewish advisor doesn't keep kosher, and he probably eats Chinese, Thai, Vietamese, Sushi, etc. at least 3 times a week.

I'm Irish. I like Chinese food, but when I'm thinking of places to eat out, Asian places don't even cross my mind. I mainly think of meant and potato entree places or Italian or Mexican places. I crave more hardy meals. It must be genetically hardwired into me.

Friday, December 05, 2008 10:37:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Many don't realize that most Chinese restaurants make their foods for the Non-Chinese customers, hence, it's really "American-Chinese" food.

I'm Chinese and many of my Chinese family/friends, including self, would rarely, if ever, order stuff that my Non-Asian friends order in most "Chinese" restaurants.

It's very difficult finding "authentic" Chinese food unless you know someone! Many of those "authentic" restaurants are located in certain areas/towns so you really must know who to ask!

I love to visit HK (where I was born but raised in USA) so I can EAT to my heart's delight! That is where REAL, Authentic Chinese food is found (Cantonese style)!

Egg fu young, chow mein (American version), chop suey... these are the most common, NOT authentic Chinese foods!
Who orders these dishes nowadays??!

Sunday, August 23, 2009 12:18:00 PM  

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