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Why My Love for Chinese Food

by Don Siegel

Personal Perspectives

Summer Volume: 2006 Issue: 13(2) page(s): 22 and 23

Why do I love Chinese food? I recall my father once said, "Jews and Chinese people must be blood-related, what with our love of Chinese food!" Is that the answer?

During my childhood and teenage years in the 1950's and early 1960's, almost everyone in my Saratoga Springs New York Jewish community would 'eat Chinese' on Sundays and Christmas, when almost all other restaurants were closed. I liked Chinese food so much that my grandmother, 'Bubbie' Bessie, even tried to make chop suey by topping deep-fried, homemade egg noodles with a cornstarch-thickened sauté of celery, garlic, onions, soy sauce, sherry and assorted chopped organ meats.

Unlike most of my Jewish family and friends, Bubbie strictly observed kashrut, the Jewish dietary laws. Because of this, she never actually ate in a Chinese restaurant. Yet, I fondly remember her chop suey. It was a tasty, if unauthentic, blending of some Chinese-style ingredients within the context of Old World East European tastes.

My own appreciation of authentic Chinese cuisine evolved while studying for my doctorate in Minneapolis, Minnesota. On a whim, my wife Bette and I bought a large wok and learned some simple stir-fry and braising techniques from a Chinese graduate student, Alvin Young.

Chinese graduate students in my academic department would invited us to a Chinese New Year's banquet, complete with Shark Fin Soup, Hunan Spicy Tofu, and Sea Urchins with Scallions. This kind of Chinese cooking, without the thick brown and white sauce bases so typical of Chinese-American cuisine, was a culinary revelation to us. Thereafter, I started studying Chinese cookbooks and visiting restaurants recommended by Chinese people on the streets of the Chinatowns in New York, San Francisco and Toronto. I tried to duplicate what I tasted; and I think I became pretty good at it.

First, I thought about writing a kosher Chinese cookbook. What prompted this was continual requests for recipes from the kosher Chinese dinners I prepared in the Jewish community in Syracuse, New York. Each year, my ten-course authentic Chinese New Year dinner at my synagogue made for more than one hundred people sold out weeks in advance. To help me out with these popular dinners, the rabbi's wife purchased a restaurant wok.

All these dinners are strictly kosher, which really is not difficult to do. To make a kosher Chinese dinner, I use beef, lamb, turkey, chicken, and fish such as salmon and tilapia instead of forbidden foods such as pork and shellfish. I do not mix milk products with meat products, as that is also forbidden in the rules of keeping kosher. But then, the Chinese do not either, as a general rule. I use lots of vegetables including eggplant and many tofu and gluten products.

Chinese vegetarian food is exquisite. I occasionally get tips on how to improve my own vegetarian cooking from Chinese Master Chef Simon Teng of the China Road Restaurant in nearby Mattydale, New York. He ran or was head chef at some of the best Chinese restaurants in New York City during the 1970's and 1980's.

My Chinese friends, colleagues, and graduate students tell me that the recipes in my cookbook taste authentic. The only complaint received since the book was published is that some of the recipes are 'too easy.' This comment is amusing, as I believe the finest cooking usually involves preparing excellent ingredients simply, blending the ingredients properly. Doing so achieves desired subtlety and flavor. Most of the recipes in my cookbook are adapted from classic Chinese recipes, but with some reduction in the amount of oil and soy sauce, for health reasons. And, they are cooked without too much deep-fat frying.

Why do Jews love Chinese food in the first place? When the Jews were dispersed throughout the world, and by necessity assimilated to one degree or another, they tried new foods. Jews throughout the world could easily eat Chinese vegetarian dishes without fear of violating kashrut laws to maintain keeping kosher. And, needless to say, good Chinese food is simply delicious!

Perhaps my father had part of the answer as to why Jews like Chinese food. Remember, he thought that Chinese people are actually 'blood-related' to Jews. During the Song Dynasty in China's Kaifeng, a Jewish community of European refugees integrated so well that the emperor assigned six special surnames for these Chinese converts to Judaism. They were: Ai, Lao, Jin, Li, Shi, Zhang and Zha. Telephone books in the United States for metropolitan areas with large Chinese populations have hundreds of entries with these last names; is there a connection here?

One of my current Chinese graduate students, Li Jin, said that many members of her Chinese community do not eat pork and do not know why. At a recent dinner with Chinese friends, Ms. Li made lamb stewed with garlic, onions and tomatoes. She did not use soy sauce, sesame oil, scallions, or ginger. When I asked her why she made this dish, a stew common to the Sephardic Jews of Spain, Ms. Li answered that braised lamb was a favorite family meal in Nanjing.

How many other Chinese families have heirloom recipes, passed between generations? Do their recipes have origins in a possible Jewish cultural connection made hundreds or thousands of years ago? Perhaps these Chinese family recipes are true culinary blends of China and Eastern Europe. Maybe their recipes redolent of garlic, onions and paprika, are Sephardic Jewish recipes that also include tomato, cumin and cinnamon. Perhaps they could share their Chinese-Jewish family culinary traditions and together we could enhance cross cultural culinary anthropology!
Mr. Siegel, an award-winning Syracuse University professor, when not busy researching hydrology and geochemistry and cooking temple dinners, is proud of this book that shows his own love affair with Chinese Food. We did plan to review it in this issue; but limited space precluded that. The recipes below are selected from many he suggested including. There will be another after the review in the next issue. You can reach Professor Siegel at disiegel@syr.edu to share thoughts about this possible fascinating connection.
Steamed Fish with Ginger and Scallions
1 to 2 pounds of whole fish or fish fillets
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
2 Tablespoons rice wine or sherry
1 Tablespoon Asian sesame oil
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/4 cup fresh ginger, finely shredded
1/4 cup scallions, finely shredded
3 Tablespoons soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon sugar
2 Tablespoons white vinegar or rice wine vinegar
Chopped cilantro for garnish
1. Rub fish with wine and salt. Let it rest for fifteen minutes.
2. Put fish on a heat-proof serving plate and on to a steamer rack over boiling water. Steam it between seven and twelve minutes until done, depending on its size.
3. While fish is steaming, heat sesame and vegetable oils in a small pot until they are very hot. Add the ginger and stir-fry for fifteen seconds before adding the scallions. Stir fry another five seconds, turn off the heat (or if on electric burner, remove from the heat source.
4. Add the soy sauce, vinegar and sugar and stir until the sugar dissolves. Keep hot until fish is ready, then sprinkle the fish with the sauce mixture and the cilantro.
Banquet Soup
1/4 pounds fresh tomatoes
13 medium fresh mushrooms
1/4 pound snow pea pods or bok choy
2 Tablespoon vegetable oil
2 Tablespoon sherry or rice wine
4 cups chicken broth
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon of Asian sesame oil
4 Tablespoon cornstarch dissolved in six tablespoon of water
1 can creamed corn or 1 cup of fresh or frozen corn kernels
1 large egg white, beaten
1/8 cup chopped coriander leaves
salt or soy sauce to taste
1. Coarsely chop the tomatoes, mushrooms, and bok choy.
2. Heat oil and then add wine to evaporate the alcohol.
3. Add chicken broth, Asian sesame oil, and sugar and bring to simmer.
4. Add the vegetables, corn and cornstarch mixture and simmer until the peas are just barely cooked.
5. Dribble in the egg white in simmering soup to cook into strings and add coriander at the end. Salt to taste.
Sticky Wings
2 to 3 pounds of chicken wings, separated into the mini-drumstick and winglet parts
1/8 to 1/4 cup vegetable oil
6 Tablespoons brown sugar
6 Tablespoons soy sauce
1/2 cup sherry or rice wine
1/3 cup water
1 or 2 garlic cloves, minced
1. Mix the marinade, pour it over wings, and place wings in double aluminum- foil lined cookie sheet, well oiled with the vegetable oil. The wings should sit in the marinade for one to two hours before cooking for best flavor. 2. Bake wings at 475 degrees F for thirty minutes. 3. Turn wings over and bake for another thirty minutes or until they are dark and caramelized.

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