Why the Chosen People Love Chow Mein

Two Chinese men are walking out of Katz’s Delicatessen. One says to the other, “The problem with Jewish food is that two weeks later you’re hungry again.”

If you grok the basic principles underlying that joke, you’re probably primed and ready for a recent eGullet post, a digest from Arthur Schwartz’s Jewish Home Cooking.

The excerpt is all about Jews and Chinese food, a topic that may be of some interest to anyone of Jewish heritage and/or from New York City, among others.

As Schwartz writes:

Until the dispersal of middle-class Jews to the New York suburbs was complete in the 1970s and 1980s, Chinese take-out shops opened on every corner of the city. It was said that you could tell how Jewish a neighborhood was by the number of Chinese restaurants.

But why the affinity for Chinese food? The eGullet post is far more engaging and fleshed out than the following brief summary, but it boils down to the crucifixes hung in most Italian restaurants (in an earlier era), the fact that Chinese food was both delicious and affordable, the lack of dairy mixed with meat, and a certain amount of the naughty thrill associated with eating food that is often laced with a good amount of pork and/or shellfish. Here’s Schwartz on the topic:

The attraction of the forbidden aspects of Chinese food should not be underestimated, either. Eating forbidden foods validates your Americanness: it is an indication that you have ‘arrived.’ ... And the Chinese cut their food into small pieces before it is cooked, disguising the nonkosher foods. This last aspect seems silly, but it is a serious point. My late cousin Daniel, who kept kosher, along with many other otherwise observant people I have known, happily ate roast pork fried rice and egg foo yung. ‘What I can’t see won’t hurt me,’ was Danny’s attitude.

In an interesting afterthought, one of the post’s numerous enthusiastic commenters then turns the tables on the piece’s premise:

i saw the look on my chinese sister in law when she was first confronted with jewish american deli food. it was pure-focused-on-the-food bliss and admiration.

i’m writing a piece right now on a pesach seder in beijing, ashkenazic foods prepared by chinese cooks, and never ever ever have i been to a seder elsewhere that the vegetables were SO CRISP! and the chopped liver so light and fluffy (hand chopped). and the eggs for dipping into our salt-water-tears, well they were tea eggs.

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