A Fine Day for Chinese Food
ARI SHAPIRO, host:
And now: The Jewish religion has 613 commandments. And if there were 614th, it might be this: Eat Chinese food on Christmas. Go into any Chinese restaurant and you're likely to see it packed with Jewish families. Of course, that may have something to do with the fact that they're some of the only restaurants open on Christmas. But this cross-culture culinary fusion has been around for centuries.
Professor Don Siegel has spent years exploring this history. He is the author of the book "From Lokshen to Lo Mein: The Jewish Love Affair with Chinese Food." I should mention that lokshen that are Jewish noodles; lo mein, of course, Chinese noodles.
So, are you one of those people who will never touch pork unless it's in an eggroll? If you don't celebrate Christmas, how are you spending today? Our number is 1-800-989-8255. Our e-mail address is email@example.com. And you can also comment on our blog, that's npr.org/blogofthenation.
And Don Siegel is joining us from Bamboo Garden, a Hong Kong-style Chinese food restaurant in Cicero, New York. Hi, Professor Siegel.
Professor DON SIEGEL (Author, "From Lokshen to Lo Mein: The Jewish Love Affair with Chinese Food"): Hello. How are you doing, Ari?
SHAPIRO: I'm great. Well, I want to start with the quip that you write on the first page of your book. It says: Chinese history dates back about 5,000 years and Jewish culture dates back about 6,000 years. The question is how could the Jews survive for the first thousand years without Chinese food?
Prof. SIEGEL: I have no idea, except they may have substituted the matza for the moo shu as you indicated before. You gave me the title of my second book.
SHAPIRO: What's with this intense bond between Jews and Chinese food? Why not, you know, Thai or Japanese or Hungarian food?
Prof. SIEGEL: It's a great question, and to be honest no one really knows the exact reasons. Back in 1990s, there were a couple of sociologists, Gaye Tuchman and Harry Levine, who published a paper on this. They're sociologists from New York, and they suggested three possible reasons. The first being that Jews, when they immigrated to New York, were near the Chinatown, approximate to Chinatown.
SHAPIRO: Just geographical proximity.
Prof. SIEGEL: Yeah, it's right. And so - plus the desire to immigrate with the great melting pot. The other idea was that perhaps the foods are fairly common - garlic and onions and cabbage and so forth. And the last one is the one that I think is probably most likely, which is the concept of safe treif.
SHAPIRO: Hmm. Explain that. Treif, of course, is food that's not kosher, that observant Jews don't eat.
Prof. SIEGEL: That's right. Safe treif are things such as pork and shellfish and not mixing milk with meat. And the idea that Jews could go to Chinatown, wherever they might be in enclaves around the world, and they could eat vegetarian, they could select foods that didn't have pork and shrimp and other shellfish in it. And then furthermore, there is this concept that if they couldn't identify the food as it's chopped up in an ingredient, as an ingredient in, say, eggrolls, that if you couldn't identify it, then it was considered safe treif. The rabbis don't particularly agree with this interpretation.
SHAPIRO: I hear some of your fellow diners laughing in the background there.
Prof. SIEGEL: Yeah, it's probably about half of my congregation at this…
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. SIEGEL: …at this restaurant right now.
SHAPIRO: You know, you - could you just describe the scene there for us, if you would?
Prof. SIEGEL: The scene is chaotic.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. SIEGEL: They're - in fact, this is one of the Chinese restaurants that's open on Christmas, and it's quite popular and it's quite authentic. And so I'm so I'm surrounded by about 30 people listening in to one-half of the conversation.
SHAPIRO: Well, you know, you write in your book about your mother who strictly followed the Jewish dietary laws when she was at home. But when she would go out for Chinese food on Christmas or other days, she would order shrimp and lobster sauce, which is about the least kosher thing you could think of. How does this operate?
Prof. SIEGEL: Oh that, it's very interesting. You know, mom would do that. You know, she would go out, we would go out once a year or twice a year, usually once on Christmas, and then she eats shrimp and lobster sauce. And you'll find that quite a few Jews who aren't of, I guess you'd say the Orthodox group, the conservative reform, will often keep kosher at home. But when they leave home -for righter reasons, they seem to eat shellfish, but very often will not eat the pork. So, yeah. I guess it's just their own personal secular interpretation of what the dietary laws are all about.
SHAPIRO: All right. Well, Professor Siegel, hold on for just a second. We're going to take a caller.
Prof. SIEGEL: Sure.
SHAPIRO: This is Greg(ph) from Tucson, Arizona. Hi, Greg.
GREG (Caller): Hi, Ari. How are you?
SHAPIRO: Fine, thanks.
GREG: Yeah. I called - I have to tell you that my parents' congregation, which is in the East Bay in Northern California, decided this year to start a new tradition and do a Chinese food and "Fiddler on the Roof" sing-along.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SHAPIRO: So it's dinner theater.
GREG: Yeah, it - so to speak, yeah, I guess it's dinner theater. They - I called - talked to them this morning and they said that it was everything that they imagined that it could be.
SHAPIRO: Do you know how all of the tickets are selling?
GREG: You know, I think pretty well. I think that most people in my congregation probably went because…
Prof. SIEGEL: Because what else are they going to do on Christmas, right?
GREG: …(unintelligible) change from the usual.
SHAPIRO: Yeah. All right. Well, thanks a lot for your call, Greg.
GREG: Oh, thank you very much.
SHAPIRO: You know, Professor Don Siegel, I was thinking about Jewish Kreplach and Chinese wontons, which are essentially the same food. They're dough wrapped around a bit of meat that you deep fry or you put in soup. Is this just coincidence or is there actually real connection there?
Prof. SIEGEL: I think it's a coincidence. If you look at the cultural traditions all around the world, taking some dough and wrapping around a meat or vegetable product, you know, it's pretty ubiquitous, I think, with culinary cuisines. You have the ravioli in Italy. You know, the kreplach, as you said, are the Jewish cuisine; the wontons of the Chinese cuisines. So I just think that there happens to be a coincidence.
SHAPIRO: Although you also writing your book about the Silk Road and how travelers would brings things, intermingling the foods and the cultures.
Prof. SIEGEL: Oh. That's - yeah, that's a good point. You know, the Jews did go to China or during the Crusades. They were fleeing the Crusades. And in fact, Jews got to China before Marco Polo himself. It was an active community in Canton or Guangzhou as it's known now. And so there might have been some culinary, you know, transmissions there.
There's one interesting culinary transmission, if I may, that during the Song Dynasty, Jews that converted were given Chinese surnames. And one of the surnames was Lee and the other one is Jin. And I have a Ph.D. student whose name is Lee Jin from China. And she explained to me how her family doesn't eat pork. They don't know why. And this goes back generations. And on celebratory dinners, they cook a dinner of a lamb stew with onions and garlic and peppers -no soy, no ginger. And that is a Sephardic Jewish dish out of either Portugal or Spain. So I thought that was kind of interesting.
SHAPIRO: Hmm. When you go out for Chinese food on Christmas, do you have special dishes that you order every year?
Prof. SIEGEL: Not necessarily. At this particular restaurant, I just told the shop and the owner to prepare something that she would eat on - for a banquet which didn't have pork or shellfish. And so she has prepared a banquet for us.
SHAPIRO: That sounds great. I want to read here from an e-mail. This is from Joel(ph) in Berkeley, California. He writes: Just noticing how, in recent years, Jews are gathering together on December 25th. It used to be Chinese food in movies, but now it's expanded to special events.
He writes, I'm a professional storyteller and will be telling stories at Afikomen, our local Jewish bookstore here in Berkeley, California. I've heard by e-mail of at least half a dozen local Jewish events going on later in the day - concerts, parties and so on. It seems that Jews are specially inclined to plan events on years when Hanukkah comes early as it did this year.
Professor Siegel, have you found this to be the case?
Prof. SIEGEL: Well, not here that I know of in the Jewish community that, you know, generally here in Syracuse to my knowledge, people go to the Chinese restaurant and still go to the movies afterwards.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. SIEGEL: But that's an interesting idea to have a special function on Christmas, you know, such as the caller, Greg, had suggested, the Chinese dinner in Fiddler's sing-along. It's kind of amusing.
SHAPIRO: All right. Well, let's take another caller. This is Sheryl(ph) in Chicago, Illinois. Hi, Sheryl.
SHERYL (Caller): Hi. How are you?
SHAPIRO: Fine, thanks.
SHERYL: Well, I want to talk about going to dim sum. My Chinese husband and I go to dim sum with our girls every Christmas Day because what else is there to do? Nothing else is open. And then, later, we will be going to see a movie.
SHAPIRO: What movie?
SHERYL: We haven't decided. We think we're going to see, well (unintelligible) what we're going to see? "National Treasure." We have to find a movie that, you know, our kids can see and we can see, too.
SHAPIRO: And this is an annual tradition for you, with your family?
SHERYL: This is an annual tradition when we're not with my husband's family celebrating Christmas. They don't move around the area so we go visit them and then we do celebrate. So while we're here in Chicago, we out for dim sum. And just this morning, we were talking about my older daughter's Bat Mitzvah, which is a few years away. But we'd like to, you know, have the Bat Mitzvah and then have dim sum afterwards at the party.
SHAPIRO: Sounds great. All right, Sheryl, thanks for the call.
SHAPIRO: All right. Let's go to Stephanie(ph) in Philadelphia. Hi, Stephanie. Hi, Stephanie, are you there? Oh, it looks like we lost Stephanie.
Well, here's a blog comment from Linda(ph) in San Francisco. She writes, not only do Jews in San Francisco eat Chinese, we go to Kung Pao Kosher Comedy. Best thing for us to do on December 25th, as it's just another day for the millions of us who do not celebrate this holiday.
Well, I've never heard of Kung Pao Kosher Comedy, but it sounds like something to look into.
Professor Siegel, have you found that the Jewish-Chinese tradition has grown as you've been spreading the word in Syracuse?
Prof. SIEGEL: Oh, yes, it has. And by the way, I have heard of the Kung Pao Comedy hour over in San Francisco. It's a pretty well-known comedy group. I've never attended it. But they - on Christmas, they put on a lot of Jewish/Chinese comedy. In Syracuse, you know, it certainly is my, you know - because of the cookbook in part, I think probably more Jews, at least, are aware of that they should go to Chinese restaurants on Christmas. That's part of their tradition.
SHAPIRO: All right. Well, we're going to let you get back to your banquet. Professor Don Siegel, thanks very much.
Oh, no, actually, you know, we're going to keep you for another couple of minutes, if we could.
What are the dishes there on the table that the chef has brought out?
Prof. SIEGEL: Okay. The dishes on the table - what we have are vegetarian dumplings, these are pot stickers that are fried in the bottom and then steamed on the top. We have something that is a vegetarian stir fry, Buddha's delight, is what it's often called. We have - looks like a fish and a spicy sauce with baby bok choy, Cantonese roast duck. And we previously had some chicken soup with some simple chicken and spinach in it.
SHAPIRO: You know, Professor Siegel, I just need to note that although you have gained some measure of celebrity for your expertise in Chinese-Jewish culinary connections here, your professional life doesn't actually have anything to do with this. You are an earth science professor.
Prof. SIEGEL: Yeah. I'm an earth science professor of - I pulled some note and I've written, you know, like most professors of my seniority, you know, hundreds of papers and books and so on. And whenever I go to a conference, whenever I'm introduced, and this is the guy who wrote the Chinese cookbook.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SHAPIRO: All right. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Ari Shapiro.
We're going to take another caller. This is Stephanie in Philadelphia. Hi, Stephanie.
STEPHANIE (Caller): Hi. About the Jewish-Chinese culinary connection, I grew up - whenever I went to New York to visit my grandfather, we would go to a Chinese restaurant and the owner would usher us in and feed us everything and have us not pay. And the story was that when my grandfather, who was just a lawyer kind of a, you know, one-person shop lawyer, one of his colleagues came in one day and said, oh, I have this client. He needs a liquor license. I don't have time to deal with it. Can you deal with it, Hyman(ph)? And Hyman said, sure. And from then on, words spreads around the port that if you wanted a liquor license, Hyman Frank was the one to go to. And so he got liquor licenses for I don't know how many Chinese restaurants but that was part of my childhood, my Jewish childhood, I should say.
SHAPIRO: A real symbiotic relationship there.
SHAPIRO: Okay. Stephanie, thanks a lot for the call.
STEPHANIE: Thank you.
SHAPIRO: This is an e-mail from Emuna(ph) in Berkeley, who writes: I'm working at a Jewish deli and restaurant in the heart of Berkeley's Gourmet Ghetto. It's the busiest day of the year. And while I'm not with my family, I am spending the day with a horde of friends - regular customers, neighborhood friends, coworkers, so I feel it is a wonderful way to celebrate Christmas Day. She writes the fact that we are so incredibly busy on Christmas Day shows that in the U.S., Christmas Day is really a day for family and friends and that we all have traditions which have evolved from that.
SHAPIRO: And Professor Don Siegel, it strikes me that this is really true for you, too. Even though Christmas is a day that is set aside for Christians to celebrate with family and friends, here you are at a big banquet table of everybody from your synagogue, doing a very similar sort of thing.
Prof. SIEGEL: Exactly, exactly. It's become part of our family and community tradition. And so I agree with your comment. Traditions are wonderful when you bring people, family and friends together.
SHAPIRO: Have the Chinese restaurant owners in your town come to know and expect you?
Prof. SIEGEL: Oh, yes. They're familiar, you know, with me because of the book and so forth. And this is one of the two very good Chinese restaurants. The other one is China Road. And there, the - I'm sort of the - the chef, Simon Teng is - he actually cooked for Nixon many years ago when (unintelligible) came. And so he has actually helped me along with some of my culinary skills.
SHAPIRO: Hmm. All right. Well, let's go to another caller. This is Francine(ph) in Denver. Hi, Francine.
FRANCINE (Caller): Hi. I'm also - have my plans cancelled today because it's snowing in Denver…
FRANCINE: …and our tradition is the deli and a movie.
SHAPIRO: Deli in a movie?
Yeah, busiest day of the year at a particular deli, I don't know if I can mention the name…
SHAPIRO: Like pastrami and matzo ball soup kind of deli?
FRANCINE: Well, it's just gem. Yeah, a real Jewish deli, although not kosher. And it usually is the scene. And I'm very disappointed. It's the - not only their busiest day of the year, the only day of the year they take reservations.
SHAPIRO: The only day of the year that they take reservations.
FRANCINE: The only day of the year, and my friends canceled because quite reasonably it's snowy. I would have gone. And it is a wonderful scene, a Jewish warm, friendly, crowded scene. And when I was growing up in New York, the link between Chinese and the Jews - I think it was because in the neighborhood, there were only two traditional ethnic restaurants that were really of high caliber and that was Italian and Jew and Chinese. And on Christmas Day, even though I think it was just that was you could get decent food at a Chinese restaurant…
FRANCINE: …or an Italian restaurant.
SHAPIRO: Yeah, and that was it.
FRANCINE: …(unintelligible). There is a more elevated tradition I thought it was nationwide. But in Denver, there is a volunteerism of Jews taking over at hospitals and - to relieve Christian workers so they can have a Christmas.
SHAPIRO: Right. The Christmas Jew working on the holiday. Well, thanks for your call, Francine.
FRANCINE: Sure. Bye.
And Professor Don Siegel, I also want to thank you for your time.
Prof. SIEGEL: My pleasure. And I want to re-invite you, if you or any listeners would care to come to my annual Chinese dinner at my synagogue. And when is that? Just a little plug. January 26, and last Saturday in January. I'm cooking for over 200 people.
SHAPIRO: Thanks a lot. Professor Don Siegel is author…
Prof. SIEGEL: Okay.
SHAPIRO: …of "From Lokshen to Lo Mein." And you can find some of his recipes for vegetable dumplings and other kosher Chinese dishes at our Web site npr.org/talk.
Professor Siegel is also professor of earth sciences at Syracuse University in New York and he's been joining us from Bamboo Garden Chinese Restaurant in Cicero, New York.
This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Ari Shapiro.