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Israel's Chinese Wall

by Dalia Lamdani

Chinese Food in the Middle East

Spring Volume: 2001 Issue: 8(1) page(s): 9, 10, and 12

During the last decade, Israel learned more about Chinese food than it ever knew. Chinese restaurants opened in the late fifties. These were the first ever, and there were very few. The connection between what was served in them and Chinese food was loose, at best. Why was this?

In the first two decades of its existence, Israel was almost isolated. Most Israelis could not go abroad and therefore had no idea what Chinese food tasted like. An Israeli friend told me one day about a new Chinese restaurant, the first one that was opened in Jerusalem. I was eager to hear his impressions because he had lived many years in London and knew what Chinese food was really about. His comment was prompt and short, “It was the best Polish food I ever had in Jerusalem.”

For a long time there was only one flavor Israelis automatically identified with Chinese cuisine: sweet and sour. On every table of a Chinese restaurant, by the soy sauce and hot sauce bottles, there was a jar of a jellied custard-like substance which boasted a shocking pink color and a shocking sweet-and-sour taste to match. This was the ultimate Chinese condiment; and in some Chinese restaurants in Israel it is still going strong.

The only Chinese spice that was sold in grocery stores was a dark, frightfully salty liquid, a few drops of which could ruin a dish in no time. This was a locally made soy sauce. The only positive thing one could say about the liquid was that its manufacturer did not call it soy sauce. Even today, with all the genuine Chinese soy sauces we have, this inferior substitute is still around and it sells well. Lately, I was flabbergasted to meet it in a restaurant, served with sushi.

The public were not the only ones who did not have a clue as to the tastes and flavors of Chinese cuisine. In food sections of most Israeli newspapers, every recipe that included soy sauce and every chicken coated with tart jam before roasting were titled 'Chinese' and those who did not yet dine in Chinese restaurants could not escape tasting 'Chinese' at weddings and similar affairs. At these events, food was prepared by caterers who cooked it according to newspaper recipes.

There was never and still is no Chinatown in any city in Israel. There are no more than a hundred Chinese living in the country, including students and embassy personnel but not what Israel calls: foreign workers. How many of them is difficult to assess. This means that the initiators of the Chinese restaurants were not Chinese. They were and still are Israelis. And, they are aided by imported cooks who, as a rule, are from Thailand.

Up to the last decade, the menu of Chinese restaurants was limited and boring. It mainly served customers what they already knew from other local restaurants. All Chinese restaurants were expensive, more or less–mostly more. An inexpensive but decent Chinese restaurant is a concept that Israel is not yet familiar with.

The first store to sell foods from the far east was THE CHINESE GROCERY at 48 Hakovshim Street, Tel Aviv; phone: 03-5165601. It opened in 1993 and was discussed in Flavor and Fortune's Volume 4 on page 16. Before that, it was impossible to purchase oyster sauce, Sichuan pepper, dried shrimp, etc.

Canned items such as bamboo shoots and water chestnuts were imported sporadically but they disappeared without notice, mostly when needed. Fresh Chinese vegetables are still unknown in Israel except for ginger and bean sprouts. Israeli patrons have never set eyes in a restaurant or in a store on such things as bok choy, garlic chives, Chinese broccoli, and dozens of other common Chinese vegetables.

Progress in the last decade was not generated by restauranteurs, nor by the hordes of young Israelis who did and still swarm to the Far East after their army service. The change took place gradually, step by step, with the increase in the number of Thai and Philippine young folk who came to work in Israel. Clever Israelis began importing, for them, foods they were familiar with. Today these items can be bought all over the country, even in the remotest villages.

The most significant change in the field of Chinese food is the discovery of dishes made with wheat dough. It began with a few noodle dishes the Thai cooks added to menus of Chinese restaurants. Then came the opening of some noodle eateries; an Israeli equivalent to cheap Chinese eat-in/take-out shops in the United States. Finally, a few dim sum places opened in Tel Aviv. The first of these was in 1995. It was next to and an annex of the above mentioned Chinese Grocery. Most of these newer places were inexpensive, their selection limited, but their standard not bad at all. They give their clients a yardstick by which to judge the expensive and mediocre dumplings served for many years as appetizers in the most pretentious Chinese restaurant in Israel.

The most remarkable restaurant for dishes made with dough is THE CHINESE WALL at 26 Mikve Israel Street, Tel Aviv; phone: 03-5665716. It opened in 1996 and is very different from other noodle eateries. It shines against other dull local places and is outstanding by any measuring rod. While dim sum came to Tel Aviv via New York and fell into line with yuppie trends in the general food scene, The Chinese Wall, unaided by western matchmakers, represents the cuisine of Lanzhou, the capital of the wheat-growing province of Gansu in China’s north-west.

Here, all wheat noodles are made daily on the premises using a special technique of pulling and stretching. There is no rolling and no cutting of the dough. The noodle maker holds both ends of a thick rope of dough and stretches it as long as his arms can reach, thus reducing the thickness. Next he folds the rope over itself, grabs the two ends and stretches again, thus increasing the number of sections of the rope. As this stretching and folding continues, the dough becomes thinner and thinner, the strands more numerous. In less than ten repetitions, the noodle expert has a bunch of noodles as thin as spaghetti, made in a process done with staggering speed akin to juggling. No doubt this is the best show in town. The noodles are called Lanzhou la mien. Lanzhou is the city, la is for pulling, and mien means noodles.

The owner of The Chinese Wall, Yaacov Wong, says that these noodles are made in China only in Lanzhou. He also advises that they are made in Budapest, Hungary--of all places. He does not have information about the United States, and neither do I. However, the editor says pulled noodles have been demonstrated on television and there are Chinese restaurants in the United States that serve them and that she has eaten them frequently, but not Lanzhou style. Israel now has two such eateries because recently a branch opened in Jerusalem of the Lanzhou La Mein at 17 Yoel Solomon Street; Jerusalem; phone: 02-6221991.

Why is it that Israel has not yet discovered the foods of Shanghai and Hunan but has two eateries featuring foods of this relatively remote regional cuisine? The answer should be looked for not in Chinese geography but in Jewish history. Once upon a time, there was a Jewish community in China. With origins obscure, it existed in what was then called Kaifeng for more than a thousand years until the 18th century when the Yellow River flooded the area and devastated the population.

At that time many Jews perished, their synagogue was ruined, and most of their assets lost. After the flood, the Jewish community declined and degenerated. In the 20th century, there were only a few surviving families who had lost all attachment to Jewish tradition, Nonetheless, a few kept some vague rituals of holidays and Kashruth or keeping kosher dietary laws.

Among those remaining families were the Wongs. They left Kaifeng and settled in Lanzhou. Yaacov Wong and his sister Rivka Wong, who is the manager of the Tel Aviv restaurant, remember when their grandparents were alive the family ate the food their grandparents had in their home and they observed the main Jewish holidays. Their parents, however, only ate Lanzhou or local dishes and cooked Lanzhou foods when they opened their restaurant. Yaacov and Rivka grew up in this very Lanzhou restaurant. They took its recipes with them when they decided to make 'Aliya' which means to return as Jews to permanently live in Israel.

On the menu of the Israeli Chinese Wall restaurants the brother and sister opened are some Chinese dishes served with rice, which should be ignored. Among the wheat-dough dishes, on the other hand, are some delightful surprises such as Steamed or Fried Sourdough Bread, Dumplings, Shao-Mai, and Gyoza. The Pulled Noodles on their menu are the base of many of their cooked dishes including some of the soups. In some of the dishes, the noodles are replaced by what Yaacov calls 'flakes.' He advises that they are another speciality of Langzhou.

These flakes are pieces torn by hand from noodle dough. Yaacov’s mother used to tear them from narrow strips of dough, but he prefers to make them from wide strips. Although noodles and flakes are made from the same dough, when cooked, they taste quite different. This is much the same as two shapes of Italian pasta made from the same dough. This difference in taste exists even when they are served with the same sauce.

Lanzhou cuisine also has many potato dishes, and uses a lot of peanuts. It has some spices that Yaacov brings back once a year when he goes back to China on a visit. Here are some of the regional specialities in his Israeli restaurants. The categories on the menu (shown on page 30 in the hard copy of this issue) are: Vegetarian, Beef, Chicken, Fish, and Duck. The regional specialities are:

1) Yu xiang dishes (these are numbered 1, 13, and 25 on the Hebrew menu) are titled: Yu Xiang Qie Dze, Yu xinag Niu Ro, and Yu Xiang Jie Ro. They are Eggplant with Fish Flavor, Beef with Fish Sauce, and Chicken with Fish Sauce, respectively. These foods have a ‘fish taste’ which he describes as 'a little hot, a little sweet, and a little sour.' This taste comes from typical local spicing for fish which he tells me includes wheat wine. In the Sichuan province, yu xiang means dishes cooked in sauce mixtures commonly used for fish dishes.

2) Khin shao dishes (menu items numbered 7, 19, and 32) are titled: Hong Shao Tu Dao, Hong Shao Niu Yuen, and Hong Shao Yu which are Beans of Many Flavors, Beef Balls with Many Flavors, and Fish with Many Flavors, respectively. The different dishes with potatoes are cooked on low heat in this Hong Shao style. Yaacov advises that these dishes have spread to other parts of China from Langzhou,

3)Lamb cooked with caoguo which Yaacov spells 'tzkho-gua', which is close to its common name in the Chinese pharmacopeoeia, Fructus tsaoko, Crevost and Lemaire. He uses the seeds of this nut-like dried ripe fruit of Amomum tsaoko, the Pharmacopei spelling, which is the size of a whole nutmeg but has internal seed clusters and is related to and may be a false or type of cardamon. Caoguo seeds are often used in conjunction with star anise and other spice-like flavorings and the two Chinese characters of cao and guo literally mean ‘grass fruit.’

4) Sweet and Sour Chicken Breast Lanzhou Style is made with chicken filets fried in a batter spiced with hua jiao and dipped in a sauce served so hot that it is still bubbling.

5) Gun Bian Niu Ro Si (or number 16 on The Chinese Wall menu) is a hot dish made with strips of beef filet fried in a dry pan, no oil, and it is sprinkled with dried hot red peppers, hua jiao, garlic, ginger, and salt. Hua jiao some know as Chinese pepper, others know it as Sichuan pepper, zanthoxylum, fagara, or kua-chow.

The Chinese Wall is a kosher eatery. Whenever one Jewish tradition clashes with another over kashruth, the Jewish dietary laws, the more lenient Sephardic tradition is the one always followed; and so it is at The Chinese Wall. At Passover, for example, this restaurant does not serve noodles because they are forbidden to all Jews. But The Chinese Wall does serve rice and legumes. These are foods Ashkenazi Jews, or those with European ancestry, do not eat during this holiday but Sephardic Jews, with Mediterranean heritage, do and welcome them.

Recently, I read an original story by Hilla Alpert, a young Israeli food writer. She mentioned Lanzhou noodles in a surprising connotation. Her story was about an Italian pasta called umbrichelle, or fresh noodles made with only flour and water. These noodles are typical of the Italian province of Umbria. Nostalgically, she described a meal eaten in Umbria with the umbrichelle, two different dishes, one with local truffles, the other with a ragu of boar meat, and root vegetables. It is impossible to get any umbrichelle in Israel, she wrote, but there are noodles that taste very such the same. She spoke of Lanzhou La Mien at The Chinese Wall Restaurant. Buy them there, she recommends, then cook them lightly and serve them with a sauce made with portabella mushrooms cooked in meat stock and red wine, then sprinkle some pecorino romano cheese on top.

Marco Polo should not get credit for bringing noodles back to Italy, they were there before his trip. Alpert, however, does deserve credit for this Chinese-Italian marriage making a wonderful connection between Chinese noodles and Italian tastes.
Dalia Lamdani, an Israeli food writer based in Tel Aviv, has a keen eye and even keener palate. Her insatiable curiosity about and extraordinary ability to understand the foods of the world are admired by food professionals and laymen alike.

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