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Kaifeng: A Chinese Jewish Haven

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Religion and Religious Groups and Their Foods

Winter Volume: 2017 Issue: 24(4) pages: 22 to 23

This city, a busy stop on the Silk Road, was popular and used for centuries. It became even busier when folk from the Middle East used it to travel on from the eighth Century BCE and thereafter. A goodly numbers were Jewish. In 1163 CE, Rabbi Leiwei, one of those Jews, was in charge of their settling in Kaifeng.

With needed approvals, he built a synagogue for them. a ritual bath, kosher butchering facility, kosher kitchen, and a Sukkoth–the place for meals during this Jewish holiday. He oversaw and served this Jewish population for years. It was a popular community, so popular that Marco Polo came and visited them. To honor their contributions to the larger Chinese society, after 1421 these Jews were allowed to take civil service examinations. Those that passed could and did apply for and get government positions.

The Jews in Kaifeng practiced their religion there from before the Southern Song Dynasty (1129 - 1279 CE), until the late 19th century, and then most left because their synagogue was destroyed by overflowing Yellow River flooding. A few years before, a Jesuit priest had made contact with them; he reported they were still abstaining from pork, observing their holidays, and enjoying other aspects of their religion. They were doing what other Jews in Western and Eastern Europe were doing, during these years.

We also know of the Jews existence and practices here in other ways. One was seeing a stone memorial called a ‘steele’ from Kaifeng on display at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Canada. There are others and records showing their presence, and many practices of their religion there. During the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644 CE), an emperor did give seven Chinese family names to the Jewish people there including: Ai, Jin, Lao, Li, Shi, Zhang, and Zhao, Those of Shi and Jin are equivalents of Stone and Gold, both common Jewish family names in the west. There are other indications including that the Kaifeng torah scrolls found there are identical to Torah scrolls in Europe and elsewhere, all testaments to Jews living and practicing their religion in Kaifeng.

Before, during, and after 1900, more Jews, mostly from Europe, came to Kaifeng to escape antisemitism. Many moved on to Shanghai joining the larger Jewish population there.

Those interested in the plight of the Jews from the Kaifeng community tried to rescue those torah scrolls and help the fifty or so Jewish families of some two hundred and fifty folk relocated to Shanghai. The Jews in Shanghai did ask them not to sell these scrolls and that they would help them regain them and rebuild their synagogue or build a new one for them. However, nothing came of that offer. Some wonder if that was because the scrolls had already been sold to Christian organizations. We did not learn if that was why nothing happened.

Some of the offspring of these and other Jews continue to write ‘Youtai’ on their government documents indicating they are Jews. Others do not even though they are descendants of the many Kaifeng Jews some of whom had come to Kaifeng from the Middle East or were born and raised in Kaifeng. They chose not to identify themselves as Jews as did the many from Iraq and Iran.

You may know of those from well-known families of Jewish immigrants that went to China. One such is the Sasoon family of couture fame. They came to Shanghai from a different direction, from Baghdad, and did go to Hong Kong, in 1902. Later, their patriarch, Sir Jacob Sasoon, dedicated the Ohel Leah Synagogue in his mother’s memory. Others gave other items of appreciation.

Other Jews went directly to Hong Kong from Iraq as did the Kadoories along with waves of others who went there and elsewhere in China. Some went to Hong Kong before it was officially part of China. Others arrived long before the first or second world wars. There were some who had come to these cities at the beginning of the 1800s. Many invested in Hong Kong, even before it became part of China. These included those who purchased the Peninsula and the Furama Hotels. Now, there are more than three thousand Jews in Hong Kong in the community that began in the 1800s. Many are Baghdadi and Iraqi Jews who came from these cities in those early years; others have been coming since.

Today, many Jews in Hong Kong own businesses, keep kosher, and keep many of their other religious beliefs. Some went for business, some for pleasure, some out of necessity. Many Jews who now come to Hong Kong do visit the Furama Hotel or the Jewish Community Center near it. Some go to the mikvah, the Jewish ritual bath on Robinson Street, or they go to the Hong Kong Chabad for kosher dinners on the Sabbath or catered ones at one of the above-mentioned hotels. Local Chabad members help, many have kosher food stands at jewelry and other business fairs, some at the Canton Trade Fair.

Foods started by Kaifeng Jews in this city once the capital of China in the Henan Province, are still available there and elsewhere. Many Jews and non-Jews enjoy these Jewish culinary roots when visiting or living in China. These foods include small steamed buns called Kaifeng xiao long bao stuffed with many different meats and/or vegetables. Should you want to try them, visit the Di Yi Lou restaurant at the crossing of Zhingshan Road and Sheng Fu Qian Streets, or at The First Restaurant of Steamed Buns; or other places in Kaifeng, in Shanghai, or in other cities. We did and dipped ours in vinegar and soy sauce, a local custom. You can too.

Another Chinese food influenced by the Kaifeng Jews is ‘Mayuxing Bucket-shaped Chicken’ in Kaifemg or in Hong Kong, even elsewhere. Called ma yu xing tong zi ji, it is made with locally-raised hens served in a thick soup. The chicken is crisp and named after its developer, Mayuxin. You might try it at the Mayuxing Duck and Chicken Market or at the Snack Night Market, the Drum Tower Night Fair, or the Xisi Night Fair, and at other places, too.

Another food influenced by early Jews in China is Chrysanthemum Hot Pot. The Chinese call it ju hua hou guo, as it is named for the pot it is cooked and served in. Old ones were made of brass or steel. Newest ones are electric and no longer are heated by coals or charcoal. This dish is cooked at the table and can be loaded with fish in a chicken soup. Some restaurants make theirs with meat, fish, and chicken. and a special sauce. Years ago, we had some at the Drum Tower Night Fair; many other places probably still serve it, too.

Another Kaifeng influenced food with Jewish roots from these early settlers, is called Four Treasures. This dish has many flavors including those of chicken, duck, pigeon, and quail. Their thick soup, called Kaifeng tao si bao, is a savory delight. There are other main dishes and snacks including a local carp covered with noodles, pictured on page 22. It was featured in an earlier issue of Flavor and Fortune. Its recipe is below. Enjoy them in your kitchen or at a restaurant that serves them all.

Kai Feng Noodle Blanketed Carp

2 to 3 pound fresh carp, fins and scales discarded
2 cups vegetable oil
1/3 pound very thin dry noodles, soaked until soft
1½ cups chicken broth
2 teaspoons Chinese white vinegar
2 teaspoons granulated sugar
2 Teaspoons Shao Xing rice wine
1 teaspoon salt
3 slices fresh ginger, slivered
2 scallions, minced
1 Tablespoon cornstarch mixed with like amount of cold water


1. Rinse, then dry the fish with paper towels, and then cut five incisions across its back almost to the bone.
2. Heat oil in a wok or deep pan, then add the carp and pour the hot oil over the fish for two minutes, then remove it to a towel-lined preheated platter and let it rest one minute, then discard the paper towels.
3. Drain the noodles, increase the pan with the oil and deep fry them just until they look crisp and turn color. Then remove them to paper towels, drain well, and put them on top of the fish. Set the oil aside for another purpose.
4. Dry the wok or pan with paper towels, add the broth, vinegar, sugar, wine, salt, ginger, and the scallion pieces and bring to the boil, stir then put the fish back in and add the cornstarch mixture and stir until it starts to thicken, stir again, then remove the fish to a pre-heated platter. Put the fried noodles only on top of it. Then pout s little of the sauce on the center of the noodles, the rest around the fish., then serve.

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