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FOOD : The Chinese-Jewish Connection : Two Cultures That Share an Appreciation of Scholarship, Family, Tradition--and Chow Mein

October 04, 1987|KEN HOM | Ken Hom is the author of "Ken Hom's Chinese Cookery" (Harper & Row) and "Ken Hom's East Meets West Cuisine" (Simon and Schuster). and

I SAW two cookbooks nestled next to each other in my local book- store--"The Chinese Kosher Cookbook" by Ruth and Bob Grossman and "Kosher Cuisine" by Helen Nash--and they made me wonder: Was this juxtaposition a coincidence or a sociological commentary on a longstanding culinary affinity? Whatever the experts might divine, the juxtaposition struck me as apt. In my years as a professional cook and food writer, I have often noted the strong attraction that Chinese food has for American Jews. This elective affinity may be traced back for at least two generations in the melange of ethnic chronicles we call our history.

Of all the various cuisines in our "melting pot," the Chinese style has won the widest acceptance among the Jewish clientele. For decades, most Chinese restaurants in Jewish neighborhoods have enjoyed success in a high-risk business. The appeal of Chinese food to Jewish patrons is impressively long lasting. Its popularity is not a new development based upon the recent emergence of a more adventurous dining public.

"The white containers were brought home by Poppa," my friend Nancy remembers, "and we used forks, not chopsticks. The menu never varied: sweet-and-sour shrimp, chow mein, chicken with cashews and lots of steamed rice. What I liked best is that for the whole meal, no one said, 'Take bread'--to sop up the gravy as we did every other night."

For a Jewish kid growing up in the Fairfax area or Westwood, even in a religiously non-observant household, Chinese food was, in most cases, the only acceptable alternative to home-cooked food. And even the most Americanized Chinese menu was such a change from the daily fare and daily routine that it became its own sort of celebration.

To fathom the reasons for the "being Jewish, eating Chinese" phenomenon, I had to move beyond my own view: Who doesn't love Chinese food? After all, other cuisines have their virtues too and are just as amenable to the imperatives of kashrut, the strict rules of kosher food preparation. So what I had to look for

was some historical or sociological explanation.

Both the Chinese and Jewish immigrants to America, especially those in our big Eastern cities, enjoyed or suffered through many similar experiences: They shared, sometimes literally, common ground in ghettos and Chinatowns (often next to each other, like books on a shelf) and a sense of long cultural traditions; both were the objects of prejudice and discrimination, unable or unwilling to be assimilated as the melting pot would have preferred.

There are other similarities between the Jewish and Chinese communities and their cultures. There is a shared emphasis on learning, on scholarship, on respect for traditions. The family plays a powerful role for both Jews and Chinese (although that is hardly unique to them) both in business dealings and as a bulwark against discrimination and overt racism. Moreover, the Chinese have been free of the insanity of anti-Semitic attitudes.

As a practical matter, the Chinese cuisine includes elements with natural appeal to Jewish tastes. Once we omit such salient features of Chinese cuisine as pork and shellfish--and we may readily do so because it is technique, not ingredients, that is central to Chinese cookery--there is nothing to prevent most Jews from enjoying Chinese food. Chinese menus are infinitely flexible and thus adaptable to all but the most rigorously orthodox Jewish diet. Stir-fried shrimp with vegetables is a dish easily turned into stir-fried chicken and vegetables, just as a pork dish quickly can become a beef dish. Many Cantonese mainstays such as egg rolls, chicken chow mein and won tons became standard items in the repertoire of kosher caterers. I understand that such dishes are served weekly in the faculty-student cafeteria of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.

My friend Bruce, whose parents never bought or prepared pork, says they were astonished when told they'd been eating bits of it for years in fried rice and mu shu : "You mean--it wasn't chicken?"

There are other comforting similarities. Rich, clear chicken broth and the many soups made from it, rice, noodles, onions and dumplings are all common to both cuisines. Jews and Chinese customarily share dishes on a menu, tasting different foods, textures and flavors. Corn oil and peanut oil are widely used by both Chinese and Jewish cooks, and the absence of dairy products in Chinese cuisine makes it easier to assimilate into the Jewish dietary tradition.

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