Growing up, Thomas Chen, now the chef of Tuome in New York City, always wondered why his parents’ Chinese restaurant was so busy on Christmas Day.
“You always assume that that’s a holiday where people just stay at home and cook,” he says. He then learned from his Jewish friends at school that they went out to eat at Chinese restaurants on Christmas. In fact, it’s a long-held tradition in the Jewish community, as it’s a holiday they typically get off from work and school, but don’t celebrate. Chen could relate.
“Same thing for my culture, we don’t celebrate Christmas,” he says. Or if they do, it’s in their own way. Just like Thanksgiving, when his family serves duck or roast pig when everybody else is eating turkey, Christmas is simply a time to get together as a family, even if you don’t celebrate the holiday the way everyone else does. “That’s kind of the same thing for the Jewish community,” he says of their Chinese food tradition.
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But growing up, Chen didn’t really celebrate Christmas because, like many Chinese restaurants in the U.S., his family never closed. It’s this parallel that led the Chinese and Jewish cultures to come together on this holiday, as the Chinese restaurant in town was likely the only thing open on Christmas, Chen says.
Chen’s parents emigrated from Hong Kong nearly 40 years ago. They opened their restaurant in Westchester; it had a delivery and takeout operation as well as a few seats for people to sit and eat in-house. Growing up, Chen would always help out after school, or whenever his parents needed him to, both in the kitchen or at the front.
“I’ve always enjoyed cooking, even at a young age,” he says. “Back in high school, I used to cook for my parents all the time.” But it was just a hobby for him, he didn’t think it would ever become a career. He went into accounting, which he didn’t particularly enjoy, and eventually decided to quit to pursue what he really loved doing.
Chen studied at the International Culinary Center and worked at lauded fine-dining restaurants in New York, like Eleven Madison Park and Jean-Georges, before opening Tuome in the East Village in 2014. “I wanted to take the flavors I grew up with and refine them using many different techniques,” he says.
While his food at Tuome is well worth a visit, Chen shares a delicious recipe for everyone (Jewish or not) who wants to try their hand at cooking a Chinese dish at home this year instead of going out. “It’s a fun way to change it up but still do Chinese food,” he says.
Blue Carbon Steel Wok, $99 on Made In
He noticed lo mein and stir fries were particularly popular dishes during Christmas. This home cook–friendly recipe is a stir fry of chicken with Sichuan chili, shiitake mushrooms, and basil. Chen makes this dish at home a lot, and likes it because you just toss everything in one pot. You can swap out mushrooms for other vegetables, but he suggests precooking them separately three-quarters of the way and then adding them, so everything is cooked evenly.
The stir fry serves two, so if you’re cooking for a crowd, just double or triple the amounts. The sauce will make enough for 3 pounds of chicken; if you don’t use it all, it’ll make a versatile sauce for future weeknight meals.
Sichuan Chili Stir Fry Sauce
- 2 cups soy sauce (like Kikkoman Less Sodium Soy Sauce)
- 3 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce (like Lea & Perrins)
- 1 cup brown sugar, packed
- 2 tablespoons ginger, cut in 1/2 inch slices
- 3 cloves garlic, crushed
- 1/2 cup basil
- 2 tablespoons Sichuan Chili (like Lao Gan Ma)
- In a medium-sized saucepan, combine the soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, ginger, garlic, and brown sugar. Stir well and bring the mixture up to a boil.
- Once it reaches a boil, turn the fire off. Add basil. Stir and steep the basil in the soy mixture for 30 minutes.
- After steeping, strain the mixture and then add Sichuan chili. Set aside for the stir fry.
Chicken with Sichuan Chili, Shiitake, and Basil
- 1 pound chicken thighs, cut into 1-inch cubes
- 2 cup shiitake mushrooms, sliced
- 1 1/3 cup garlic chives, in 1-inch slices
- 4 teaspoons garlic, finely minced
- 2/3 cup basil leaves, torn in half
- 2 tablespoons Shao Xing Wine
- 3/4 cups sauce (see recipe above)
- 5 tablespoons canola oil
- Heat a large wok over high heat. Once heated, add 3 tablespoons of canola oil and add the chicken. Spread the chicken over the wok to achieve a nice sear. Don’t overcrowd the pan. Stir fry for approximately 3 minutes.
- After the chicken has been seared, add 2 more tablespoons of oil and the mushrooms to the pan. Stir fry for 1 minute until the mushrooms are slightly cooked through.
- Add the garlic and garlic chives to the pan. Stir fry for 1 minute. Deglaze the pan with Shao Xing wine.
- After deglazing (this will only take 30 seconds), add the sauce and basil. The sauce will thicken as you stir fry the ingredients, approximately 30 seconds. Toss well and turn off the fire. Serve over rice.
Header image courtesy of Noah Fecks