New Jersey Jewish News
Kung pao to kugel
Donald Siegel, author of From Lokshen to Lo Mein: The Jewish Love Affair with Chinese Food (Gefen), grew up in a Modern Orthodox home where he was not served such exotic cuisine.
My mother would make these concoctions that, in her mind, would mimic Chinese food. They were very tasty, but they werent Chinese food.
His culinary epiphany came 30 years ago while studying for his doctorate at the University of Minnesota. We went to this really great hardware store, and they had the largest wok Id ever seen. It was cool. I bought it and started experimenting. There was a pretty good Asian contingent of grad students . It kind of took off from there.
The self-taught chef would visit Asian restaurants during his travels and try to recreate the recipes. Over time Ive developed a pretty good tongue, he said, and found he was able to accurately reproduce the dishes.
Maintaining kashrut poses problems, Siegel admitted. We try to keep kosher in the home as best we can, but outside, much like my mom and my dad, we kind of go safe treif, which by his definition includes seafood. I tell the rabbi, Moses never even saw a lobster, he never saw a shrimp, and he never saw a shellfish. The nomads never knew of seafood, so how can they make a judgment? Thats my justification, he said, noting that theres no mention of such creatures in the Torah.
Siegel and his wife, Bette, are members of Beth Sholom-Chevra Shas in Syracuse, NY, where Bette serves as catering director for the Conservative synagogue.
In his real job, Siegel is an earth science professor at Syracuse University. Geochemists generally like to cook, he said. Its the same process: mixing ingredients, heating them up, and seeing what happens.
In promoting his book, Siegel, 58, will occasionally pack his favorite wok and Chinese cleaver and hit the road. He held signings and demonstrations at Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick in December and the JCC of Central New Jersey in Scotch Plains this past March. Its a labor of love more than a business venture, as is his kosher Chinese catering business. Whatever money he makes goes to charity.
As the cuisine continues to gain in popularity and restaurants catering to kashrut observers increase, China itself is getting on board. A lot of kosher bottled products are being made [there] now, he observed. Its only a short period before kosher meat will be produced in China and shipped back to America.
In China everyone knows what kosher means. They understand theres a market.
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