22 December 2009

Food: Chinese food and Jews

Where do you find the best Chinese restaurants in the US? Look for the Jewish neighborhoods. There is an age-old affinity between Members of the Tribe (MOTs) and Chinese food.

MOTs contemplating moves to a new neighborhood or city have a priority list: Where are the best schools, the best doctors, and the nearest (and best) Chinese restaurant? The last has expanded to include Japanese/sushi.

We even had a few excellent Chinese restaurants in Teheran a long time ago. Wherever we traveled, we tried the Chinese food and have memories of interesting places in Amsterdam, The Hague, Barcelona, Zurich and elsewhere. Readers who visit northern California should make a stop at my favorite, Chef Chu's in Los Altos (the tangerine chicken is worth the drive from anywhere) - make sure you go hungry - and drool over their menu! But nothing beats New York or Los Angeles for the sheer numbers of excellent Chinese restaurants.

Unfortunately, Chinese food in Israel is dreadful. Every dish comes adorned with those mystery vegetables, water chestnuts are unheard of, and there are no Chinese chefs. On the other hand, the sushi and Japanese food is very good, so it somewhat makes up for the lack of Chinese food.

Moment Magazine's Nonna Gorilovskaya covers this history of Jews and Chinese food in the November-December issue and even wrote a holiday parody to kick it off:

Twas the night before Christmas and there was hardly a sound,
As Jews jumped in their cars and drove to Chinatown.
Their orders were given to waiters with care,
In hopes that wonton soup soon would be there.

The children finished their noodles and nestled in their beds,
While visions of fortune cookies danced in their heads.
Now, Moment takes an inquiring look,

At how this love affair with Chinese food took. —NG

Gorilovskaya interviewed author Andrew Coe ("Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States").

Here are the questions and some comments by Tracing the Tribe - but you'll have to go to the link above to read Coe's complete answers. It is definitely worth it!

- When and where did the first Chinese restaurants in the United States open?

The first were in San Francisco in 1849......

- When did Chinese restaurants migrate to New York City?

The Chinese arrived in NYC in the 1870s-1880s because of discrimination in the American West, joining the huge mass of other immigrants......

- What is chop suey?

Tracing the Tribe has never understood how anyone can order that dish. I am a Chinese food purist. For example, Kung Pao chicken should only contain chicken, peanuts, red peppers and the sauce (except that I always add water chestnuts!), no mini-corn or broccoli or other mystery ingredients whose sole purpose is to "stretch" the dish with extraneous stuff. To me, chop suey is just a hodge-podge of things all chopped up together - we often called it "left-overs."

- Was chop suey an American invention?

Coe believes that it is a real dish from the town of Taishan in Guangdong province, from where the majority of 19th century Chinese immigrants came to the US. He believes it is really low-class country peasant food and not even recognized it as Chinese. But the Taishanese Americanized the dish. ....

- When did large numbers of American Jews begin eating Chinese food?

The immigrant generation lived together in crowded Jewish neighborhoods, and observant East European Jews didn't frequent restaurants with dubious kashrut. Their sons and daughters, however, were very different. Chinese cuisine, in the 1920s-30s, was considered urban, sophisticated - and cheap.....

- Were there other reasons why Jews preferred Chinese restaurants to, let’s say, American or Italian restaurants?

Chinese restaurant owners, unlike any other restaurant owners, did not discriminate and treated all their customers the same, and they were open every day of the year.....

- How did Chinese food become “safe treif”?

"Treif" means not kosher in Yiddish. You know, things like pork and shrimp. Coe talks about "safe treif." If you cannot see big pieces of the forbidden food, it is OK by some stretch of the imagination. Out of sight, out of mind.

Tracing the Tribe's maternal grandparents kept a kosher kitchen, but also had a set of special plates for Chinese, although they avoided bringing in take-away dishes containing pork and shrimp. I'm sure they were not the only family to have such a set of dishes.

- When did kosher Chinese food come on the scene?

Kosher Chinese food grew in the 1950s to cater to the observant Jewish market.....

- When did they spread to the suburbs?

Wherever Jews moved - to the suburbs, the restaurants followed them....

- When did the tradition of Jews eating Chinese food on Christmas begin?

Most places today are closed on Christmas, but 80 years ago, everything was really closed. MOTs had nothing to do until they discovered that Chinese restaurants and movie theaters were open on December 25. That's what Tracing the Tribe's family did in the Bronx and in Brooklyn, along with our friends and relatives.

- What happened?

Hooray for immigration, says Tracing the Tribe. After 1965, chefs from all over southeast Asia began arriving and opening specialty places (Vietnamese became the new Chinese). More regional places were opening (Szechuan). It wasn't just Cantonese or Shanghai-style anymore, but other styles of Chinese and Asian. Many of today's restaurants feature "fusion" menu, including a wide range of regional specialties from egg drop soup to tuna nigiri and everything else....

- Do you have a favorite cultural reference to Jews and Chinese food?

Coe's favorite cultural reference to Jews and Chinese Food is Herman Wouk's "Marjorie Morningstar."....

- What does the fortune cookie say about the relationship between Jews and Chinese food?

According to Coe, more discoveries are on the way in Chinese and Asian food.

- What’s the latest in Chinese food in the United States?

Coe says to look for new Chinese regional places, such as Dongbei cuisine from the northeastern region (formerly Manchuria), which he likens to Korean....

Read the complete interview at the link above, and read more of Moment's articles here.


  1. Schelly,
    This is a hoot! I'll definitely have to get down to Chef Chu's in 2010. My Japanese mom has been making a delicious chop suey as long as I can remember but no leftovers ever entered the recipe. I never thought to ask her how it became part of her repertoire. I'm calling mom today!

  2. The tradition of going out for Chinese food on Christmas Eve or Christmas lives on in an organized fashion in San Francisco: Kung Pao Kosher Comedy (http://www.koshercomedy.com/)!

    When I lived in San Francisco, I would go each year and have a blast!