From Flanken to Fortune Cookies: Jews and Chinese Food on Christmas
On my seven hour drive back to Boston on Christmas Day, I was listening to a piece on "Talk of the Nation" about the long-standing tradition of Jews eating Chinese food on Christmas.
Sure enough, as I pulled into Brookline, Massachusetts, I noticed many-a-yarmulke-wearing person in the windows of Chinese restaurants, along with lines of Jews snaking around the block, patiently awaiting egg rolls and Moo Shu.
On the radio, I was interested in listening to the many Jews calling in to share their own variations of non-Christmas celebrations involving Chinese food: Dim Sum and a movie, Kosher Kung Pao Comedy in San Francisco, a Fiddler On the Roof sing-a-long with fellow synagogue congregants at a Chinese restaurant, etc. Professor Don Siegel, author of From Lokshen to LoMein: The Jewish Love Affair with Chinese Food, whose congregation in Syracuse, NY has an annual Chinese catered meal on Christmas, explored the Jewish-Chinese culinary connection and reasons why Jews might take to eating Chinese food on Christmas (beyond the obvious hypothesis that Chinese restaurants are the only restaurants open). He discussed similarities between kreplach and wontons; between the core flavors and ingredients of Jewish and Chinese cooking (ginger, garlic, salt) dolled up with oil in a frying pan; the lack of dairy products in Chinese cuisine that make Kosher renditions all-the-more easy; as well as the close proximity of Jewish and Chinese immigrant communities in New York City (from 1880-1920) which may have resulted in shared culinary experiences and the transmission of recipes. Siegel also referenced the ancient Jewish communities of China -- namely the Kaifeng Jews -- and mentioned a student of his whom he suspects may be a descendent of this community. Many of the Jews of China who were forced to convert were given Chinese surnames like Lee and Jin, and this student -- with the surname Lee -- had grown up never eating pork or shellfish and whose family, on special occasions, cooked lamb stew with onions and peppers, a traditional Sephardic dish with origins in Portugal or Spain.
Siegel is not the first to muse about the Jewish-Chinese culinary connection. Check out the 1992 article: "Safe Treyf: New York Jews and Chinese Food: The Social Construction of an Ethnic Pattern" by sociologists Gaye Tuchman and Harry Levine. More recently, there's the YouTube music video "Chinese Food on Christmas" by Justin Beckenheimer.
Incidentally, I don't recall my family ever eating Chinese food on Christmas. Often, we were vacationing somewhere warm (in 1993 we were riding horses on a Dude Ranch outside of San Antonio... for a change of pace... ) and Chinese food was a rare find. But I do find "Chinese food on Christmas" traditions and their evolving history quite amusing. Due to the long waits at the restaurants on Christmas, I saved my Chinese dinner for the day after Christmas. Better late than never, right?
So... what did you do for your non-Christmas celebrations?