Here's an old joke about Jews, Chinese people, and food:
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."
Here's another one:
If, according to the Jewish calendar, the year is 5764, and, according to the Chinese calendar, the year is 5724, what did the Jews eat for forty years?
That Jews have an affinity for Chinese food is no secret. The Jews know it. The Chinese know it. Everyone knows it. 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.
Going out "to eat Chinese" continues to be a Sunday ritual for many Jewish families; even kosher families know that there are many kosher Chinese restaurants. In Brooklyn, there’s one called Shang Chai, a play on the Hebrew word for "life," chai. Any Sunday at 6 p.m., step into Shun Lee West on West 64th Street, the Upper West Side’s upscale Chinese restaurant, and you’d think they were holding a bar mitzvah reception.
Here's another joke, although it's no joke:
What do Jews do on Christmas? They eat Chinese and go to the movies.
Eat Chinese because those were the only restaurants open on Christmas. Go to the movies because all the Christians were home, and you could get into the theater without waiting on line.
That the Chinese are not Christian is important to understanding the appeal of the Chinese restaurant to Jews. If you went to an Italian restaurant, which, aside from the coffee shop, the luncheonette, or the deli, was likely the only kind of restaurant in your neighborhood before the American food revolution, you might encounter a crucifix hanging over the cash register, or at least a picture of the Madonna or a saint. That was pretty intimidating to even a nonobservant Jew. The Chinese restaurant might have had a Buddha somewhere in sight, but Buddha was merely a rotund, smiling statue -- he looked like your fat Uncle Jack. He wasn't intimidating at all.
Important, too, was that the Chinese were even lower on the social scale than the Jews. Jews didn't have to feel competitive with the Chinese, as they might with Italians. Indeed, they could feel superior. As Philip Roth points out in Portnoy's Complaint, to a Chinese waiter, a Jew was just another white guy.
Italians didn't go out to eat as much as Jews. Italian-Americans spent Sunday afternoons gathering in large family groups, eating Italian food at home. The Italians and Jews continued to live together when they left their immigrant ghettos on the Lower East Side and started moving to the boroughs, along with the Chinese who wanted to leave the impoverished conditions of the Lower East Side as much as any other group. The Chinese that lived among the Jews and Italians in the boroughs were the owners of the restaurants and the hand laundries.
So the Jews' proximity to Chinese restaurants was important, and let's not discount the fact that Chinese food tastes good and costs little. When I asked my parents why, when they were courting in the 1940s, their dates always ended with a Chinese meal, and why we continued to eat in Chinese restaurants as a family more often than at other kinds of restaurants, the answer was simple and obvious. They could afford it. In their youth, during and right after World War II, a classic combination plate of egg roll, fried rice, and usually chow mein cost 25 cents.
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." Although both Italian and Chinese cuisines feature many foods that are proscribed by the Jewish dietary laws, such as pork, shrimp, clams, and lobster, there are two big differences. The Chinese don't combine dairy and meat in the same dish, as Italians do -- in fact, the Chinese don't eat dairy products at all. 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.
Even Jews who maintained kosher homes often cheated by serving Chinese takeout on paper plates. I had one neighbor who would only let her family eat Chinese on paper plates in the basement, lest the neighbors across the alley that divided the houses only by about ten feet should look into her kitchen window and see those telltale white containers on the table.
Chinese Roast Meat on Garlic Bread with Duck Sauce
This is an exquisite example of Jewish crossover food, "fusion food" these days. It was a dish that made first- and second-generation Jews of the 1950s, Jews who no longer abided by the kosher laws, feel like they were truly Americans as well as urbane and sophisticated. Imagine what a scandal it was to observant parents and grandparents, what a delicious act of defiant assimilation it was, to eat Chinese roast pork on Italian garlic bread.
This was invented in the Catskills and brought back to Brooklyn where, today, substituting roasted veal for the trayf meat, the sandwich survives in kosher delicatessens in Brooklyn and Queens. (It is particularly well done at Adelman's, a delicatessen on King's Highway and Ocean Avenue in Brooklyn.) With pork, it is also a hot item in diners on the South Shore of Long Island, where Jews from Brooklyn and Queens moved decades ago.
By all accounts, the sandwich was created sometime in the mid-1950s at Herbie's in Loch Sheldrake, New York. It was the most popular Jewish-style deli-restaurant in the area. According to Freddie Roman, the Borscht Belt comic who years later starred in the nostalgia show Catskills on Broadway, Herbie's was where all the entertainers would gather after their last shows at the hotel nightclubs. "Specifically for that sandwich," says Freddie. "And everyone else had to eat what the celebrities ate."
Herbie's sandwich of Chinese Roast Pork on Italian Garlic Bread was so popular among the summer crowd in "The Mountains," that it was imitated back in "The City." I remember when it was introduced at Martin's and Senior's, two fabulously successful, middle-class family restaurants on Nostrand Avenue in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn.
In just a few years, it seemed Chinese roast pork on garlic bread became so popular in the southern tier of Brooklyn communities -- from Canarsie through Mill Basin to Bay Ridge -- that every diner and coffee shop made it. The sandwich even made it to Manhattan in the 1960s, at a place called The Flick, an ice cream parlor and casual restaurant near the then-new movie houses on Third Avenue.
Eventually, Herbie's, which closed in Loch Sheldrake only several years ago, opened Herbie's International on Avenue N in the Flatlands section of Brooklyn, where many of its Borscht Belt customers lived. It, too, was a well-priced family restaurant, serving, as its name was meant to imply, a little of this and a little of that from all over. But, as would be expected in this neck of the woods, "international" was really limited to red-sauced southern Italian, Cantonese-American Chinese, and a few specialties of the Yiddish kitchen. Maybe they served French crêpes, too.
Herbie's original sandwich was undoubtedly made with something other than real butter. Who knows what grease Herbie used. And the garlic flavor may have come from garlic powder, not fresh garlic. There are garlic spreads available in some supermarkets that probably come pretty close to the original flavor. If making the sandwich with pork, you might as well use butter and chopped fresh garlic. Of course, to make it a kosher meat sandwich (using veal), the fat would have to be vegetable-oil based, like olive oil. If you are making a kosher sandwich with veal, using olive oil and chopped garlic not only makes it kosher but also more contemporary. In that case, leave off the Chinese duck sauce, too, and douse the meat with balsamic vinegar. There should be a certain "white bread" quality to the roll with either version. The duck sauce used to flavor the meat is an apricot-based, sweet condiment; Saucy Susan is a popular brand.
4 tablespoons softened butter or extra virgin olive oil
8 cloves garlic, finely minced
4 (6- to 7-inch) French-style loaves, not too crusty nor too firm
1 pound Chinese-style red-roasted pork, or plain roast veal
Duck sauce or balsamic vinegar, for drizzling
Chinese mustard (optional)
To prepare the bread, in a small bowl, make garlic butter by working the butter and minced garlic together with a fork until well combined. For an oil dressing, combine the olive oil and garlic. Let the spread stand at room temperature for 30 minutes or up to a few hours.
Preheat the oven to 350˚F. Heat the bread directly on the middle rack of the oven for about 3 minutes, until hot. Leave the oven on. Remove the loaves from the oven; for each loaf, hold it with a potholder and halve it the long way with a serrated knife.
Spread the cut sides of each loaf with garlic butter or drizzle with the garlic oil. Place the loaf halves, spread-side up, on the middle oven rack and toast until the edges are browned.
To assemble the sandwiches, arrange a layer of sliced roast meat on the bottom half of each loaf. Drizzle the meat with about 2 tablespoons of duck sauce, and then very lightly with Chinese mustard.
Serve open with the top half of the bread, spread-side up, alongside the meat-filled bottom.
Chinese-American Chow Mein
There was absolutely nothing trayf about basic chow mein. The base was all vegetables. It could even be served in a dairy restaurant, and it was. Sure it could be topped with roast pork or shrimp, but it was just as Chinese topped with chicken or beef, or nothing. Chow mein became mainstream New York food in the 1930s. It was on the menus of kosher and nonkosher restaurants, and hardly a specialty of just Chinese restaurants. Even the chichi Stork Club had a whole list of different chow mein choices. At the other end of the spectrum entirely, Nathan’s, the hot dog emporium on Coney Island, featured chow mein on a hamburger bun garnished with crisp fried noodles. It still does.
Serves 3 or 4
2 tablespoons peanut, canola, or corn oil
2 medium-large onions, peeled, cut in half through the root end, and thinly sliced (about 3 cups)
4 ribs celery, thinly cut on a sharp diagonal (about 2 cups)
1 large clove garlic, finely chopped
11/2 cups sliced white mushrooms (about 5 ounces)
11/4 cups chicken broth
2 tablespoons dry sherry
2 tablespoons soy sauce
4 teaspoons cornstarch
1 cup fresh bean sprouts
1/2 cup sliced fresh water chestnuts (optional)
About 2 cups white meat chicken, cooked any way and cut into strips (or red-roasted Chinese pork or veal, or sliced steak or roast beef)
Fried Chinese noodles, available at any supermarket
In a large skillet over medium-high heat, heat the oil until very hot but not smoking. Add the onions and celery and stir-fry for 4 to 5 minutes, until the onions are slightly wilted.
Add the garlic and mushrooms and stir-fry just 1 minute. Add 1 cup of the chicken broth, cover the pot, and simmer for 3 to 5 minutes, until the vegetables are tender.
Meanwhile, in a small cup, with a fork, blend together the remaining 1/4 cup chicken broth and the sherry, soy sauce, and cornstarch.
Uncover the pot and stir in the bean sprouts and water chestnuts. Give the cornstarch mixture a final stir to make sure the starch is dissolved. Add it to the pot and stir it until the liquid in the pot is thickened. Taste for seasoning. You may want to add more salt or soy sauce.
Serve immediately, topped with the chicken, on a bed of fried Chinese noodles. It is best when eaten immediately, but you can reheat it, gently, if need be, adding a bit more liquid as necessary.
Arthur Schwartz is a Brooklyn-based food critic, writer, and media personality. New York Times Magazine has called him "a walking Google of food and restaurant knowledge." His five previously published cookbooks include the IACP award-winning and James Beard award-nominated Arthur Schwartz's New York City Food. Read his 2004 eG Forums Q&A here.
Excerpted from Arthur Schwartz's Jewish Home Cooking: Yiddish Recipes Revisted by Arthur Schwartz, copyright © 2008. Reprinted with permission by Ten Speed Press.