Chefs Explain Why Jews Eat Chinese Food on Christmas
Why do so many members of the tribe seem to love wontons as much as they do matzoh balls?
Photo via Flickr user Ian Sane
This time of year, let's be honest: The most Jewish-American tradition isn't even celebrating those eight crazy candle-and latke-filled nights. It's hitting the local Chinese restaurant on Christmas, of course.
Many American Jews grow up eating Chinese food every Christmas night, and while their gentile friends are digging into a baked ham or a Feast of Seven Fishes to celebrate the birth of Christ (or at least pretend to), Jews are at the local Chinese place noshing on moo shu pork with a side of spare ribs. Sure, Chinese food is full of pork and shellfish—both of which are considered traif, or non-Kosher under traditional Jewish dietary guidelines—but among the less strict, eating Chinese is a de facto ritual.
Hell, the tradition-cum-trope even famously wormed its way into the halls of power a few years back. In what is now an exchange widely known throughout the polito-sphere, Senator Lindsey Graham asked Justice Elena Kagan how she had spent the previous Christmas during her 2010 confirmation hearing, and Kagan shrewdly responded to uproarious laughter, "You know, like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant."
All of this has us wondering: What the hell is up with Jews and Chinese food, especially on Christmas? We reached out to a number of food experts and chefs on both sides of the cultural divide—Chinese and Jewish—to learn why so many members of the tribe seem to love wontons as much as they do matzoh balls.
Theories abound. For starters, there's this: Back in the day, the only place open for non-Christians to dine on Christmas was the local Chinese restaurant, but that excuse doesn't explain the growing popularity of the trend today, given that there are now plenty of other restaurants, from Indian to Thai, open on Jesus's bday. Indeed, the trend of Jews eating Chinese on Christmas seems to be growing—especially in New York City—where several restaurateurs told me that Christmas is, by far, their busiest day (and eve) of the year, thanks largely to Jewish customers.
Could the origins of the Jewish love of Chinese food be as simple as geography? The ancestral entry point into the US for most Jews was New York City's Lower East Side, typically sometime in the early 20th century, and if you know anything about New York City's labyrinthine downtown, you know that the LES abuts Chinatown. Ergo, this theory goes, proximity led to the Jewish love of Chinese food.
Joan Nathan, a well-known Jewish food culinary expert and award-winning cookbook writer, isn't buying it. She says the popularity of Chinese food among Jews took off when they moved out of New York City and into local suburbs in the 1950s and 60s; it was the food of growing affluence and assimilation. Eating Chinese food was also a comfortable way to dine, with Lazy Susans on each table and a low-key atmosphere: "Families that felt they wanted to be American, but weren't highfalutin, loved it. You didn't have to have great manners—you could share. And Jews have always like sharing food."
Jayne Cohen, an author and Jewish food historian, agrees. She told me, "I don't think eating Chinese food on Christmas became a tradition until Jews moved out of their enclosed, tight-knit communities and into mixed areas with Christian neighbors."
Ed Schoenfeld, who currently runs Red Farm and Decoy in New York, may understand this tradition better than anybody. After all, he's a Brooklyn Jew who has been in the Chinese-food business for the better part of half a century. He says eating Chinese food became a way for assimilating Jews to embrace the exotic without going too far afield. "If you came from an educated Jewish family in Brooklyn or Queens or Manhattan, Chinese food was an easy-to-go-to, exotic food. It had lost its stigma in the early part of the 20th century and had become affordable. My parents wouldn't go to Le Pavillion or fancy French restaurants. If they wanted to go out to a restaurant, they'd go out to a Chinese restaurant."
Joan Nathan says the exoticism of Chinese food added to its appeal, but also believes the Jewish love of Chinese food may be attributable to the outsider status of both communities in a largely white, Christian America: "Maybe it was the familiar feeling of otherness; in other words, they were not as comfortable as the 'Americans' were, and so they become comfortable with each other."
Then there's the nature of Americanized Chinese food itself: Proteins are chopped small and mixed with veggies and a heavy sauce, thereby disguising forbidden pork and shellfish, effectively hiding them in plain sight. Jayne Cohen says Chinese food is "the perfect gateway to the traif-y bits of pork and shellfish hidden in -like wontons, and eventually, even the blatantly unkosher world of spareribs."
Also, there tends to be no dairy in Chinese food, allowing observant Jews to avoid dietary prohibitions on combinations of milk and meat. In short, eating Chinese food is an easy way to cheat on dietary restrictions without having your transgression scream in your face.
The flavor profile of Chinese food also factors in. Michael Solomonov, the award-winning chef of Zahav and Dizengoff, who grew up in both the US and Israel, explains, "I think the sweet and sour of Cantonese cooking is relatable to Ashkenazic cooks. I can't help but think of corned beef tongue in apricot glaze, and how ginger, garlic, and scallion would make it so nice. Danny Bowien—hook it up!" Yehuda Sichel, executive chef of Philadelphia's Abe Fisher—a restaurant "inspired by the journey of the Jewish people from their ancestral homeland to the Diaspora," agrees. "The sweeter-side sauces paired with various meats feels super Jewish to me," he says.
All the experts I spoke with say the trend is growing. Schoenfeld says that back in the 80s, when he was running Shun Lee, the stalwart of Chinese restaurants in Manhattan, "Christmas was a busy day, but not like it is now. Now, Christmas in the New York City market, if you're an upper-scale Chinese restaurant—it's almost like you're having the biggest sale of the year." Wilson Tang, the second-generation owner of NYC's oldest dim sum parlor, Nom Wah Tea Parlor, concurs. "Big is an understatement. It's huge—easily one of the busiest days of the year."
The tradition is especially strong in the Northeast, but is also beloved by Jews in California and as far away as Hawaii. Ari Taymor of Alma fame says, "I was born in Hawaii, where both Chinese and Japanese cuisines play heavily into the local diet. The first time I remember eating Chinese food on Christmas, I was probably six or seven and in California, but I'm sure I had it well before then." Still, he says, "Eating Chinese food on Christmas was something my family did because we did it together, not because we felt like it was a way to assert our identity."
The tradition seems to be unique to American Jews. Solomonov points out, "Chinese food is absolutely newer to Israel and certainly less cliché to Israelis. I think from a gastronomic perspective, if you are Jewish in Israel, on Christmas—you just have dinner." And Jews in London have not embraced the trend, as Jayne Cohen explains: "Unlike another New York Jewish food tradition—bagels and lox—this one doesn't seem to have taken root outside North America. A couple of years ago, I attended a program on what the British view as 'the American phenomenon of eating Chinese food on Christmas.' There, I learned about the British version: On Christmas, they feast on food from India and Pakistan—their non-Christian 'other.'"
The tradition lives on, but it has morphed too. Today's Chinese food is not what your bubbe ate. At Red Farm, Schoenfeld is now serving a pastrami egg roll with pastrami from Katz's, the famous Lower East Side deli; this year, he'll also be unveiling Chef Joe Ng's corned beef and black truffle egg roll. At Mile End Deli, Noah Bernamoff's Montreal-centric deli that serves a Chinese-influenced dinner every Christmas, diners will enjoy spicy red soup and short rib smoked meat bao, among much else.
I felt compelled to ask Jonathan Wu of Fung Tu in New York what in the world the Chinese community makes of all this. "I don't think the American Chinese community has a view on the tradition of 'Jewish Christmas,'" he says. "Most American Chinese are neither Jewish nor Christian, so there isn't any religious stance or opinion. It's just business as usual—meaning that the Chinese mentality is to work, work, work, and stay open 24/7." In short, Wu says, "The tradition sounds great to me. I mean, I'd be down to go to a movie and eat Chinese food on Christmas too!"
But, I wondered, does the Jewish affinity for Chinese food—and the Jewish chefs who are cooking it—amount to a case of cultural appropriation? Wilson Tang of Nom Wah says, "I think it's all good. Money talks: It's the smart thing to do for a Chinese restaurant to open on Christmas. It's perfectly fine to make money." Wu says we all need to get real: "Sure, you can call it cultural or culinary appropriation—or you could just make sure to call it what it really is: American Chinese food."
In the end, eating Chinese for Christmas is undoubtedly as Jewish-American as it gets. In the words of Noah Bernamoff: "Thousands upon thousands of Jews eat Chinese food on Christmas, so it's become a de facto tradition. We shouldn't pretend that it's not a tradition and we shouldn't pretend that it's not Jewish. We're a distinct people gathering distinctly with each other to eat this food every year at the same time. If that's not tradition, then I don't fucking know what tradition means."
Amen to that.