Jews and Chinese Food: A Love Story
Senior Editor Nonna Gorilovskaya interviews food writer Andrew Coe, author of Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States
Twas the night before Christmas and there was hardly a sound,
As Jews jumped in their cars and drove to Chinatown.
Their orders were given to waiters with care,
In hopes that wonton soup soon would be there.
The children finished their noodles and nestled in their beds,
While visions of fortune cookies danced in their heads.
Now, Moment takes an inquiring look,
At how this love affair with Chinese food took.—NG
When and where did the first Chinese restaurants in the United States open?
The first Chinese restaurants appeared in San Francisco at the very beginning of the Gold Rush in 1849. They were owned by Chinese from ports like Shanghai who had a history of dealing with Americans and knew what they liked. On one side of the menu, there were Western dishes like steak and potatoes, and on the other, Chinese dishes that Americans called “the curries, hashes and fricassees.”
When did Chinese restaurants migrate to New York City?
The Chinese came to New York City in the 1870s and 1880s because of the violence and discriminatory laws against them in the American West. At the same time, New York was in the midst of much larger waves of immigration of Irish, Germans, Italians and East European, German and Russian Jews and was just teeming with all these strange people. There was a group of early American foodies who called themselves “bohemians” and searched out exotic experiences in the immigrant quarters in the Lower Manhattan tenement districts. These writers and artists became interested in the tiny little Chinatown that was opening up at the base of Mott Street in Manhattan. There, they fell in love with chop suey, which became the great crossover food that initiated Americans into Chinese food.
What is chop suey?
Chop suey is a cross between a stew and a stir fry. There’s a meat in it, usually chicken or roast pork, or shrimp, but the principal flavoring ingredients are bean sprouts, onions, celery, maybe water chestnuts and bamboo shoots. It’s all cooked in a thick sauce and served over rice. Americans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries loved it, and it was up there with hot dogs and apple pie as one of the most commonly eaten dishes across the country.
Was chop suey an American invention?
I believe that chop suey is a real Chinese dish. It’s a farm-country stir fry that was cooked around the town of Taishan in the Pearl River Delta of Guangdong province. In the 19th century, the vast majority of the Chinese immigrants to the United States were from Taishan, and this was a local specialty that they had. People from the rest of China would have called it a really low-class country peasant food and not even recognized it as Chinese. But the Taishanese brought it to the United States, and as more New Yorkers began to eat it, the Chinese restaurant owners realized that if they got rid of black bean sauce, pieces of dried seafood and other ingredients about which the Americans were squeamish, it would be more to American taste. They Americanized it.
When did large numbers of American Jews begin eating Chinese food?
When Jews first came to the United States, they kept close to their Jewish Eastern European traditions. The tenement districts of the Lower East Side were their world.
They did not leave that world either physically or culturally. Observant East European Jews did not go out to restaurants because they did not know if the restaurant owners who claimed they kept kosher really kept kosher. But the sons and daughters of those immigrants, the first generation to be born in the United States, were a different story. They decided to become Americans and began to do things that Americans did. And one of the things that Americans did at that time was eat Chinese food. Eating Chinese in the 1920s and the 1930s was a very urban, sophisticated thing to do. It was cool, but it was also cheap, so they could afford it.
Were there other reasons why Jews preferred Chinese restaurants to, let’s say, American or Italian restaurants?
Chinese restaurant owners, unlike any other restaurant owners, did not discriminate. They did not care whether they served blacks, Jews or space aliens. They treated all their customers the same. This was unique at a time when a Jewish person could be turned away at the door of a restaurant. Imagine Groucho Marx showing up at Delmonico’s! But the Chinese restaurant owners didn’t care, and they were open 365 days a year. This included Christmas and Easter and all the Christian holidays and on Sundays, so you could get the food any time you wanted.
How did Chinese food become “safe treyf”?
One hurdle for Jews to get over was that Chinese food was filled with non-kosher ingredients like pork and shellfish. Some just held their nose and ate it, and I think after World War II, maybe in the late 1950s, there evolved this humorous concept of “safe treyf.” Obviously, treyf is forbidden but “safe treyf” means it’s forbidden but OK. If you can’t see the pork in the wonton soup stock, well, it’s OK. Or if the shrimp in the shrimp chop suey is chopped up into little tiny pieces so that you really can’t recognize what it is, then it’s OK.
When did kosher Chinese food come on the scene?
The growth of kosher Chinese food began in the 1950s when canny restaurant owners saw a market of observant Jews who did not want the short cuts of “safe treyf.” Restaurants like Bernstein-on-Essex in New York’s Lower East Side began to offer chop suey and chow mein without the roast pork and the shellfish.
Chinese restaurants were initially an urban phenomenon. When did they spread to the suburbs?
This happened after World War II. As Jews moved out of the Lower East Side into Brooklyn, Queens and then out into the suburbs, Chinese restaurants followed them. The Chinese restaurant became the family dinner place, the place for Sunday night dinner. The food was exotic, but it was also comfort food.
When did the tradition of Jews eating Chinese food on Christmas begin?
Today, on December 25th, the United States is pretty much closed down, but 80 years ago, things were really closed down. There was nothing going on in the streets. It was either church or family at home. So Jews had nothing to do until they discovered Chinese restaurants were open.
It’s hard to find chop suey on the menu these days. What happened?
By the 1960s, the whole chop suey and chow mein thing was getting tired, and people were beginning to drift away from Chinese food. But after the 1965 Immigration Act, Chinese chefs from Taiwan and Hong Kong and from all over Southeast Asia started to open new kinds of Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants, especially in New York City and San Francisco. It became chic to go into Chinatown and ferret out the latest and most exotic Chinese restaurant. American Jews were at the forefront of popularizing these new places, especially the Szechuan restaurants with their really spicy food.
Do you have a favorite cultural reference to Jews and Chinese food?
My favorite is Herman Wouk’s novel Marjorie Morningstar. It’s a story of a young Jewish New York woman who becomes a theater actress and is trying to make it in the non-Jewish arts world, yet still feels the pull of the Jewish tradition. Wouk uses Chinese food as a metaphor for her efforts to cross over into the non-Jewish world. There’s a great scene early in the novel where she visits a Chinese restaurant for the first time and is confronted by slices of roast pork. The smell nauseates her. She puts a piece in her mouth and chews it but just can’t bring herself to swallow it. Much later in the novel, she’s with her playwright boyfriend, and they have a big party with Chinese food at his apartment. She’s a couple of years older now, much more sophisticated, and she sees the Chinese food and thinks: “What’s the fuss about roast pork?” She puts some in her mouth, chews and swallows it and that’s that. The episode shows that she has made the leap into larger society and away from Jewish tradition. Of course, at the end of the book, she actually goes back to the Jewish tradition and, one assumes, doesn’t eat Chinese food anymore.
What does the fortune cookie say about the relationship between Jews and Chinese food?
Jews have moved on. They’ve discovered sushi, and now you have kosher sushi parlors and sushi stations at Jewish weddings. But even sushi is a little bit past its peak. With a little more exploration, Jews will find a lot more to discover in Chinese food.
What’s the latest in Chinese food in the United States?
This is a very good time to eat Chinese food, particularly if you live near an active Chinatown with new immigrants coming into it. There are restaurants opening up now in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and other cities that are not the familiar old Cantonese, Szechuan and Hunan ones. A new favorite of mine now is the cuisine of Dongbei, which is the northeastern most region of China [once known as Manchuria]. It resembles Korean food in some of its pickled dishes and is delicious. There’s more variety in Chinese food today than we have ever seen before.
Featured image: An Orthodox Jewish family eats lunch outside Holy Chow, a kosher Chinese restaurant in Silver Spring, MD. Photo credit: Mikaela Lefrak via WAMU.
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