May 01, 2008
There are three times during the year when a meal of Chinese food seems almost mandatory for Jews: at the conclusion of the Yom Kippur fast, on Christmas Day (usually preceded by a movie), and immediately following Pesach.
Whence this affection for Asian cuisine?
Jennifer 8. Lee (the “8” is the Chinese equivalent of “mazal tov”), devotes a chapter of her new book, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food (Twelve), to this conundrum.
“I didn’t know that Jews identified so strongly with Chinese food when I started,” she told NJ Jewish News in a telephone interview. “Most ethnic people identify with their own food,” said Lee, who quickly added that she loved a good pastrami sandwich.
Chinese people and Jews were among the largest non-Christian immigrant groups, she writes, “which meant they didn’t share the same days of worship as the rest of the…country.” They both concentrated in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where proximity encouraged “culinary crossover.” When Jews moved to other parts of the city and beyond, Chinese restaurants followed.
“The average American Reform Jew is more likely to know how to use chopsticks than how to write the Hebrew alphabet,” she writes in “Why Chow Mein Is the Chosen Food of the Chosen People—or, The Kosher Duck Scandal of 1989.” (The “scandal” dealt with the large supply of purportedly kosher ducks to a trendy kosher-Chinese restaurant in Washington, D.C. at a time when the poultry item was extremely scarce.)
These “cravings” are fairly limited to North America, she also learned. “There are Asian restaurants in Israel, but you don’t see that same kind of passionate identification” as is evidenced in the U.S. and Canada, she said.
Lee, a metropolitan reporter for The New York Times, found two scholarly treatises on Jews and Chinese food, “which is twice as many as any other academic papers on any other Chinese food topic I discovered.”
During her research, Lee hoped to find answers through an unusual source: one of “the lost Chinese Jews of Kaifeng.”
I found her home among the narrow passageways and knocked on the screen door of her one-room home. An old Chinese woman cleaning vegetables on the floor looked up and welcomed me in…. [A]s the remaining Jew in the [village], she had grown used to foreign visitors over the years—mostly Jews from America or Israel….
“Why,” I asked “do Jews in America like Chinese food so much?”
With a glint in here eye, she slapped the wooden table.
I leaned in. This was the insight for which I had traveled thousands of miles, walked along a highway at midnight, and scoured alleyways.
He Buddhist koan-like response was profound in its simplicity:
“Because Chinese food tastes good.”
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