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12/14/2011
What the heck is with the whole Chinese food thing?

created at: 2011-12-14In my family, it has always been tradition to head to Chinatown on Christmas Day and enjoy Chinese food. I have clear memories of being in a half empty restaurant, with family, surround by other families like us, enjoying some of the finest food Chinatown had to offer. We’d sit at a big round table with a lazy susan in the middle and share tables full of food.

So, why Chinese food? Why do we, as Jews, enjoy this cuisine so much? For the answer I turned to former New York Times writer and author of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, Jennifer 8. Lee, for the answer.

First off, we should observe that this affinity is largely an American Jewish phenomenon (with some Canadians too from Toronto, etc., for good measure). You don't see, for example, the same affinity for Chinese food in Israel, England or South Africa.

So we should take a look at the dynamics in the United States. Some academics have argued that Chinese food is the ethnic cuisine of American Jews because they identify with it much more than the Eastern European food of their immigrant ancestors. (Gefilte fish or dumplings, you decide!)

Or as I like to put it, Why is chow mein is the chosen food of the chosen people?

Among the theories out there:

  • Chinese food does not use dairy (unlike the other two main longtime ethnic cuisines in America, Italian and Mexican), so when many more Jews kept kosher, three or so generations ago, Chinese food was easier to eat.
  • Chinese and Jews are among the two largest (if not the two largest) non-Christian immigrant groups, so they followed similar calendars. Chinese restaurants were open on Sunday and Christmas. Great YouTube video on eating Chinese food on Christmas.
  • At a time when Jews were sensitive as being perceived as "other" in America, Chinese restaurants were "safe" places because at least the Chinese restauranteurs would not look down upon them, since they were further out on the "other spectrum." Philip Roth has a riff addressing this in his book Portnoy's Complaint.
  • The Chinese use of garlic, rice and chicken were familiar to an Eastern European palate.
  • Chinese food was not too expensive and involved family-style sharing, which was more social.
  • Chinese food represented a way to become cosmopolitan and sophisticated at a time when Jews were much more insecure about their rural backgrounds. (Hard to imagine now with Chinese food so common, but once upon a time it was exotic).
  • Chinatown and the Lower East Side, where a significant number of the Jewish immigrants from around the turn of the century lived, bordered each other. Indeed, the Eldridge Street Synagogue, one of the oldest Jewish houses of worship in the United States, is squarely in Chinatown these days. (It even has an egg roll festival.)
  • Chinese food looked exotically different from the other European fare, so there is the idea that pork and shellfish (not kosher) didn't look like pork and shellfish when shredded up in little pieces in eggrolls. So it was a type of "don't ask, don't tell" approach to eating. It's called "safe treyf" where treyf means non-Kosher food.  I'm actually surprised when I meet Jewish people my generation who won't eat pork except in a Chinese restaurant!
  • I sought out the Chinese Jews in Kaifeng, on the Silk Road, for more profound insight (these are like not like European Jews who escaped to Shanghai, they look like me but are Chosen like the Jews). When I asked the sole Jewish Chinese woman there "Why do American Jews like Chinese food?" She answered me with koan-like simplicity: "It tastes good."

For more information, there are two decent academic papers on this topic: A paper, by Hanna Miller, is the one that argues that Chinese food is the ethnic cuisine of the American Jew, arguing that they identify more with Chinese food than the Eastern European food of their immigrant ancestors. And two sociologists, Gaye Tuchman and Harry G. Levine, investigated the historical and cultural reasons for the Jewish Chinese culinary axis in their 1992 paper Safe Treyf which is very famous.

And Jews really do love Chinese food, and my book. I went on a Jewish book tour for my book. Probably have spoken in like 50 JCCs and synagogues. The interest is seriously intense, perhaps more interest than from Chinese-Americans even.

(Totally funny seeing my book, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, cited in one of the answers, with the publisher and date and everything. My book actually has 18 chapters, that was on purpose, for the Jewish audience)

So while I also like to think that the answer to this question, specifically on Christmas, is “because they are the only ones open” is also a valid reason for us to traditionally eat Chinese food on Christmas, I think that Jennifer explains this phenomena very well.

Do you have fond memories of sharing Chinese food on Christmas day too? I know I will always treasure mine.

This article is part of JewishBoston.com's Brief Guide To Christmas For The Perplexed! Download the entire guide or find the other articles in our blog section.

Photo used by creative commons licensing from Flickr user Kevin Harber

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Liz Polay-Wettengel is the National Director of Marketing and Communications for InterfaithFamily and is the co-creator and former community manager for JewishBoston.com.
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