guide to the jewplexed

Rolling with Chinese, in the Year of the Dragon


Why do Jews love Chinese food?  As we begin the Chinese New Year of the Dragon, and also welcome a new kosher Chinese egg roll food truck to LA, it's an auspicious time to consider our generations-long affair with all things wok and wonton.

This year, writing for Time, noted food writer Josh Ozersky took a stab (with a chop stick?) at explaining the Jewish-Chinese food connection.

After pooh-poohing various theories for the affinity, like Jews and Chinese are the "two largest non-Christian immigrant groups in the U.S.," and "Jews and Chinese are said to be shoved together cheek by jowl in urban settings," he proposes his own. Basically that since Chinese food "is eminently suited to take out," and Jewish families are "intensely familial, home-loving and nuclear," and love eating at home, Chinese food is our favorite.

"I think that we, as a people, prize comfort above all else, both emotionally and physically. To sit in the living room with a plate of lo mein and half an egg roll is about as safe and stable as life gets for us," Ozersky wrote.

Food for thought, but perhaps just as an appetizer.. It is true: the Jewish family is central to our lives, and jews chinese foodeateries that serve family style, like Chinese restaurants do give us an opportunity to break both noodles and fortune cookies together. But going deeper into that menu, I think our affair with Chinese food is also related to a Jewish tradition that goes all the way back to Abraham--that of hospitality. For our family and guests, we have a need to show an abundance of food, and what better hits that spot than a table full of appetizing orders from column A through D?
 
Also, in a food culture historically based on Kashrut, where the milchig, milk, needs to be kept separate from fleishig, meat, it is not surprising that Jews have shown an affinity for a cuisine that does not use dairy products. In the Jewish dietary laws, only specific categories of meat, fish and poultry are acceptable, and on a menu where many dishes are described by their ingredients like, "beef with broccoli," or "kung pao chicken," even non-observant Jews who abstain from pork and seafood, can easily avoid them.

But all this still doesn't explain the line of Jewish diners at a good Chinese restaurant, kosher or otherwise, or the apparent market niche for a food truck that serves kosher egg rolls.

In explanation, Gaye Tuchman and Harry G. Levine in their scholarly essay on the subject, (you knew there had to be one) "Safe Treyf, New York Jews and Chinese Food," say in part, that the desire to eat Chinese came from a need to feel "un-Jewish" and cosmopolitan.

Funny, but stepping into a Jade Palace, or Golden Dragon, has always made me feel very Jewish, and has provided a kind of minority status relief.
 
I am also wondering, if Chinese food is now so integrated into Jewish family histories, that it serves simply as a comfort food; one that fragrantly reminds us of simchas, good times, with our families and friends.. At our wedding rehearsal party, my father took us to a favorite Chinese restaurant. At my kid's graduations and at one of their bar mitzvah parties, we either dined in, or ordered out.

Even now, when it's raining, I want to have Chinese, since that's when, while I was growing up, my mother would reach for the take-out menu. Perhaps this week, after a day of rain, that's why I had the urge to drive to a place where food trucks congregate for a street food lunch. I walked right by Indian, German and Vietnamese themed trucks. But when I got to the kosher egg roll truck (M.O.Eggrolls), with its "Jewnese" cuisine, and saw that their menu included an egg roll named "Challah Pain Perdu," and another called "Tongue Chinois," I felt right at home.


Edmon J. Rodman has written about making his own matzah for JTA, Jewish love music for the Jerusalem Post, yiddisheh legerdemain for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, a Bernie Madoff Halloween mask for the Forward, and what really gets stuck in the La Brea Tar Pits for the Los Angeles Times. He has edited several Jewish population studies, and is one of the founders of the Movable Minyan, an over twenty-year-old chavura-size, independent congregation. He once designed a pop-up seder plate. In 2011 Rodman received a First Place Simon Rockower Award for "Excellence in Feature Writing" from the American Jewish Press Association."