A 3-page Paper about ethnic food


© Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2010 DOI: 10.1163/179325410X491473 Also available online – brill.nl/jco

Journal of Chinese Overseas 6 (2010) 80-101 brill.nl/jco

Kung Pao Kosher: Jewish Americans and Chinese Restaurants in New York1

Haiming Liu

Abstract Since c.1900, eating Chinese food has become a weekly routine, a Christmas tradition, and a childhood memory for many Jewish American families. In their adaptation to American society, Jewish Americans made eating Chinese part of their American identity. Th e evolution and change in Chinese food and Jewish eating habits took place almost simultaneously. While Chinese immigrants invented chopsuey and other popular Americanized Chinese dishes, Jewish residential proximity to New York Chinatown allowed many Jewish immigrants and their fami- lies to frequent Chinese restaurants and become familiar with Chinese food. Based on a review of articles published in newspapers and popular journals in New York and scholarly writings on food history, this article explains how and why Jewish customers were attracted to Chinese food, and describes the dynamic interaction between the two cultures in an attempt to addresses the complexity of American ethnic identity.

An Unlikely Ethnic Romance

Chinese cuisine has a unique place in the Jewish American experience. Like many Americans, early Jewish immigrants liked Chinese food for its tastiness and cheap price. But unlike most American customers, they found a deep meaning in eating Chinese food and incorporated it into their own culture. Jewish acceptance and interest in Chinese food seems like an improbable eth- nic romance for the Jewish culinary tradition which is distinctly diff erent from that of the Chinese. In their pioneering research on the Jewish fondness for

Haiming Liu is Professor of Asian American Studies at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. His email address is [email protected]

1 I want to thank Zuoyue Wang, my colleague at Cal Poly Pomona, the two anonymous reviewers for JCO, and Professor Tan Chee Beng, Editor of JCO, for their careful and valuable comments on this article. I also want to thank the Chiang Ching Kuo Foundation in New York for a fellowship for my research on Chinese medical culture. Th ough not directly supporting this project, the fellowship has greatly encouraged me in my research on China and Chinese Ameri- cans in general. Food has become an increasingly notable topic in overseas Chinese studies.

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Chinese food, Gaye Tuchman and Harry G. Levine (1997) wrote that “of all the peoples whom immigrant Jews and their children met, of all the foods they encountered in America, the Chinese were the most foreign, the most ‘un-Jewish.’ Yet Jews defi ned this particular foreignness not as forbidding but as appealing, attractive, and desirable. Th ey viewed Chinese restaurants and food as exotic and cosmopolitan and therefore as good. Indeed, many Jews saw eating in Chinese restaurants as an antidote for Jewish parochialism, for the exclusive and overweening emphasis on the culture of the Jews as it had been.”2

Since 1900 Jewish immigrants and their children have become the most enthusiastic American patrons of Chinese restaurants in New York. For many Jewish American families, eating Chinese food is a weekly routine, a Christ- mas tradition, and a childhood memory that has spanned over several decades and multiple generations. It has become an integral part of their American experience. Embedded in the Jewish aff ection for Chinese food is the story of how two diff erent ethnic immigrant groups discovered and embraced each other’s culture in their adaptations to American society.

Th e change and evolution of Chinese food and that of Jewish eating habit were taking place almost simultaneously. As chopsuey houses carved a niche in the American restaurant market and became popular ethnic eating places for New Yorkers in the 1890s and 1900s, eating out in Chinese restaurants (and of course in other ethnic restaurants as well) became trendy among many Jew- ish immigrants. In their adaptation to American society, Jewish immigrants made eating Chinese part of their American identity. In this relationship, the signifi cance of Chinese food went beyond sustenance as it refl ected both groups’ cultural sensibilities and American experiences.

Th e Historical Context

Chinese immigrants entered the United States in the 1840s during the Gold Rush in California. When chopsuey houses in New York began to thrive and attract Jewish clients in the 1900s, the Chinese community had already been in the United States for half a century. However, the Chinese community was faced with serious racial discrimination during this period. Beginning in the 1880s, the United States passed a series of exclusion laws targeting the Chi- nese. Th e fi rst Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 barred the entry of Chinese

2 Th e article is also available at http://dragon.soc.qc.cuny.edu/Staff /levine/SAFE-TREYF.pdf, p. 9. Accessed on Sept. 7, 2009.

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labor immigrants and their family members, and denied them the right of naturalization. Th e law was extended in 1892 for ten years and required that Chinese immigrants apply for a special identifi cation document and carry it wherever they went. Th e law was renewed again in 1902 and applied to all US territories. Two years later, the United States made the exclusion of Chinese permanent. Under the shadow of these exclusion laws, the Chinese commu- nity in America was shrinking rapidly. As many immigrants returned to China, the Chinese population in America declined from over 100,000 in 1882 to 85,000 in 1920 (Hing 1993: 47).

Rampant racial riots and bullying also drove most Chinese immigrants into metropolitan cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York where there were Chinatowns. Living under the shadow of racism, more and more Chinese immigrants took up menial service jobs in laundry stores and restaurants. Such occupations did not put them in direct competition with white Americans and were therefore tolerated and even encouraged in Ameri- can society. By the 1890s, the Chinese population in the city of New York had reached 13,000. While about 4,000 lived in Chinatown, the rest were scat- tered doing mostly laundry work in the vicinity of New York City (Beck 1898: 12, 58). Before 1900, Chinese laundry stores were far more numerous than Chinese restaurants in New York and it was a similar situation in other metro- politan American cities though both were often considered as constituting the cornerstone business for the Chinese community during the Chinese Exclu- sion era. After Li Hongzhang, an eminent government offi cial, visited the United States in 1896, Chinese immigrants in New York created the myth that Li’s favorite food in America was a dish called “chopsuey” in Chinatown. Soon New York saw a rapid growth of chopsuey houses throughout the city; its popularity spread to other metropolitan cities as well.3

Th e popularity of chopsuey houses in the 1900s marked an era in which restaurant operation became another major menial service occupation for the Chinese. When Liang Qichao, a leading Chinese intellectual, visited the United States in 1903, he observed that there were 300 to 400 chopsuey houses in New York alone (Liang 1981: 52). Th ough Liang’s estimate may not be accurate, New York City at that time did see an explosive growth in chopsuey houses. A New York Times article in 1900 remarked that “Judging from the outbreak of Chinese restaurants all over town, the city has gone

3 For the history of chopsuey houses in New York City, see Haiming Liu, “Chop Suey as an Imagined Authentic Chinese Food: Chinese Restaurant Business and its Culinary Identity in the United States,” Th e Journal of Transnational American Studies, Vol. 1, Issue 1, Article 12, 2009. (http://repositories.cdlib.org/acgcc/jtas)

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“chopsuey” mad.”4 In 1901, a returning American diplomat from China also observed: “Th ere is a growing taste on the part of New Yorkers for Chinese dishes. Chinese restaurants have sprung up all over the city, and they are well patronized, especially at night. Th e dish mostly in demand is chow chopsuey, a most delicious concoction, if properly prepared.”5

Coincidentally, this was also the same period when Jewish immigrants began to arrive in the United States in large numbers. Coming from Russia, Poland, Romania, Hungary, and other European countries, most of them landed in New York City. Immigration historian Roger Daniels pointed out that the number of Eastern European Jews had increased dramatically during the 19th century, from perhaps 1.5 million to nearly seven million and many of them settled in New York and other cities in the Northeast and Midwest. In the 1920s, they made up about a quarter of New York’s population (Daniels 1990: 223-26). While many European immigrants were pushed away from their home countries by hunger, poverty and unemployment, Jews were often driven away by anti-Semitism in Europe. Some political activists in the Chi- nese community came to learn about the Jewish people’s diffi cult circumstance in their home countries. In 1905, the New York Times reported: “Under the auspices of the Chinese Empire Reform Association, a company of some forty Chinese presented ‘King David’ at Miner’s Bowery Th eatre last night for the benefi t of the suff ering Jews in Russia. Nearly $1,000 was realized.”6 Th e Chi- nese Empire Reform Association (Baohuang Hui) was a political organization that tried to reform the Chinese political system without overthrowing the Manchu Emperor. Its aborted reform in 1898 made its leaders like Kang You- wei and Liang Qichao targets of political persecution by the conservative Qing government. As exiles from their home country, the reformists developed a sympathetic attitude toward those Jewish people who were forced out of their country due to religious prejudice. According to the New York Times report, the performance was very successful and drew so many people to the Broad- way theater that the police were called in to maintain order.

Jewish immigrants arrived in an era when the United States was going through rapid urbanization. At the turn of the century, New York City’s popu- lation grew very fast owing to an immigration boom and bustling manu- facturing and commercial activities. As New York was growing into a metropolitan city, eating out became trendy, especially during the decades of

4 “Heard About Town.” New York Times, Jan. 29,1900. 5 “How To Make Chop Suey.” New York Times, Nov. 3, 1901. 6 “Chinese Play ‘King David.’ Oriental Actors Perform for the Benefi t of Jews in Russia.” New

York Times, Dec. 4, 1904.

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the 1910s and 1920s. Bank clerks, law fi rm associates, department store sales- men and women employees, female offi ce secretaries and factory workers were the typical lunch-time patrons of various American and ethnic restaurants on week days. Families, couples, or groups of friends became dinner customers on Friday nights and weekends. Chopsuey houses attracted many New Yorkers and their out-of-town guests because of their competitive edge in service, price and food innovation.

Newly arrived Jewish immigrants became part of this trend and began to patronize Chinese restaurants. By 1903, the Jewish Daily Forward, a Yiddish newspaper founded by Jewish immigrant scholar Abraham Cahan in 1897, coined the new Yiddism: oyesessen, or eating out. “Oyesessen,” the paper reported, “is spreading every day, especially in New York” (Miller 2006: 437). With their tasty food and low prices, Chinese restaurants were aff ordable eat- eries and popular with all social classes and ethnic groups. When eating out, many Jewish immigrants chose Chinese restaurants because they were in the neighborhood and chopsuey was a popular food in New York. However, some Jewish customers would pick up racial slurs against the Chinese. Th ey would say, “let us go to eat at Chink” or “let us go for Chinks” without knowing that “Chink” was a derogatory word. Sometimes they thought “Chink” referred to Chinese food, not the people” (Tuchman and Levine 1997: 8; http://www. hereinstead.com/SAFE-TREYF.pdf). In general, Jewish Americans did not have prejudice against the Chinese.

As customers of Chinese restaurants, Jewish immigrants found certain sim- ilarities between Chinese food and their own food. For example, wonton, a favorite dish of many Jewish patrons, looked like “kreplach” in appearance and fl avor. Kreplach were triangular or square dumplings made of fl our with fi ll- ings of chopped meat, mashed potatoes, or other ingredients usually boiled in chicken soup. It was a popular East European Jewish delicacy and often served as a pre-fast meal before Yom Kippur, and on Rosh Hashana (Hoshana Raba). Wontons were Chinese miniature dumplings fi lled with fi nely minced pork mixed with green onions, ginger and other ingredients and sauces boiled in chicken soup. Sometimes Cantonese immigrants also deep-fried them and served the dish as a snack. Chinese meatballs reminded Jewish immigrants of their Matzo ball soup. Cantonese noodle, known as lo mein, was similar to luckshen, or Jewish noodles. Donald Siegel, a science professor at Syracuse University and a longtime fan of Chinese cuisine, authored a book entitled From Lokshen to Lo Mein: Th e Jewish Love Aff air With Chinese Food (2005).

When Jewish immigrants landed in New York, many lived on the Lower East Side just neighboring Chinatown. By 1910, more than 500,000 Jews had been “wedged into tenements in the 1.5 square miles of New York’s Lower

Haiming Liu / Journal of Chinese Overseas 6 (2010) 80-101 85

East Side” (Daniels 1990: 226). On August 13, 1925, New York Times carried a touching story about the friendship between John, a Chinese chopsuey house waiter, and Norton Rubin, a three-and-a-half-year-old Jewish kid. “Nobody knew John’s last name, nobody cared,” the report wrote. In those decades, Chinese men were always called “John,” and Chinese women, “Mary.” “Th e ways of the people to the east of the Bowery have encroached on China- town, and little Norton was one of those who toddled into a neighborhood that was alien but fascinating, with all the glamour of the unknown.”7

Under the Chinese exclusion laws, Chinatown was declining while the Jew- ish and other immigrant populations were growing. Many Chinese immi- grants had left their wives and children behind in China. Family life was rare in Chinatown. Little Norton probably reminded John of his own family or children as he adored the kid and often bought him ice cream cones or lolli- pops. He sometimes waited at the Solomon Rubin store in the afternoon until the kid appeared and “ran into the arms of his Chinese admirer.” Th e little visitor brought John pleasant diversion from his monotonous job of taking chopsuey orders. As a result of this friendship, Norton Rubin’s “speech became a polygot of Chinese, Jewish, and English.” “Th e little boy came to know the Chinese of the section as well as he did his own people.” One night, when the two disappeared for several hours, Rubin’s family became concerned and alerted the police. After some search, offi cers found the two friends joyously laughing while watching a comedy in the Th ailia Th eatre. At the insistence of Norton who wanted something more than ice cream that day, John had taken him to a movie for a special treat.8 When placed into a larger historical con- text, the friendship between this Chinese waiter and Jewish kid was made possible by the geographical proximity between Chinese and Jewish immi- grant communities in New York City. At the turn of the last century, many Jewish immigrant families lived just next door to Chinatown and often frequented Chinese restaurants.

Chow Mein for Christmas

On Christmas day, 1935, in the depth of the Great Depression, Eng Shee Chuck, a Chinese restaurant owner, summoned many of his relatives and pre- pared 80 chow mein dinners and 80 toys tied with red ribbons to be delivered

7 “Child Disappears With His Chinese Friend; Police Find Th em Happy in a Movie Th eatre.” New York Times, Aug. 13, 1925.

8 Ibid.

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to the orphans at the Jewish Children’s Home in Newark. As the steaming chow mein and toys, instead of the regular dinners, were passed to the eager youngsters, the children sang a song to express their gratitude. In return, Chuck told the youngsters 1,000-year-old Chinese fairy tales. “It was a won- derful Christmas,” he said. Th e New York Times carried this touching story with the following comment: “Truly, the spirit of Christmas whispered to Eng Shee Chuck as he sat in his Chinese restaurant today. It told a story of peace on earth and of good-will transcending race, creed and religion.”9 In addition to imparting to the readers the charitable spirit of Eng Shee Chuck, the story also shows how eating Chinese on Christmas day had already become popular with Jewish Americans by the 1930s.

Chow mein was in fact suited to the Jewish sentiment during Christmas culturally. Neither Chinese nor Jewish Americans celebrated Christmas for religious or cultural reasons though it was the biggest public holiday season in America. At the Jewish Children’s Home chow mein was an acceptable replace- ment for the regular dinner as Jewish people did not have a special Christmas meal. When the Jewish orphans sang, it was obviously not Jingle Bell. In return, Chuck told them Chinese fairy tales that were a thousand years old. Chuck’s visit to the Jewish Children’s Home was an example of a Chinese restaurant owner’s awareness of the Jewish fondness for Chinese food. It was also an illustration of two peoples discovering each other’s culture. Both groups perceived America, not as a melting pot, but rather a meeting ground where they viewed one another simultaneously as Americans and foreigners, and affi rmed their traditional values while embracing new ones.

During the exclusion era, single male Chinese immigrants often operated their business seven days a week and twelve hours a day. Chinese waiters and cooks — some were co-owners of the restaurants — did not stop work during the Christmas season although they might take turns to have a couple of days off during the Chinese Lunar New Year. Unlike most of their American coun- terparts, Chinese restaurants remained open on Christmas day. In New York City, Jewish families were often their main customers on that day while most American families ate their Christmas dinner at home. Jewish Americans did not take Christmas as a religious holiday and were often opposed to the reli- gious aspect of Christmas celebrations in American society. Although they had no wish to prepare and eat a Christmas dinner, it was almost impossible not to have any social activities or gathering during this holiday season especially for the children. Coincidentally Chinese restaurants were open on Christmas day

9 “Yule Stirs Chinese to Aid Jewish Home: Eng Shee Chuck Gives Chow Mein Dinners and Tells Fairy Stories to Children.” New York Times, Dec. 26, 1935.

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and provided non-Christian food. Th e two groups were thus brought together by the business need of the Chinese restaurant and the socio-cultural need of the Jewish people. While the Chinese found Jewish immigrants their most loyal patrons of their business over Christmas, Jewish Americans made eating Chinese their Christmas tradition.

Eating their family dinner at Chinese restaurants meant that Jewish Ameri- cans could not totally ignore the secular and commercial part of the Christmas celebrations. It was an occasion for a family gathering where parents and chil- dren or even extended family members got together and exchanged gifts. Houses and neighborhoods were decorated; department stores promoted their biggest holiday sales; and some churches off ered open-house musical performances. Children in America were more excited about Christmas than any other holidays. In Jewish culture, major religious holidays included Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah, and Passover. But they were not secular festivals where children could have much fun. To compete with Christmas, some Jewish families turned to Hanukah, an eight-day Jewish festival known as the Festival of Lights, as an alternative and gave gifts to the children. Hanukah could take place from late November to late December based on the Hebrew calendar. Th ough a minor religious holiday, three surveys conducted among Jewish people in 1957-58, 1962 and 1981 indicated that Hanukah had become the most celebrated ethnic holiday as an alternative to Christmas (Pleck 2000: 97-98).

Jewish Americans’ attitude toward Christmas was one of rejection, resis- tance, acceptance and accommodation (Sarna 1990: 172-74). According to a national survey in 1984, only about 12 percent of Jewish American house- holds purchased a Christmas tree to celebrate this holiday (Pleck 2000: 70). Even more recently, the Christmas season could be a boring week for many Jewish Americans. On Christmas Eve, 1994, the New York Times, for example, carried an article about the dilemma of Jewish Americans in the San Francisco Bay area. It stated: “Th ey can’t watch television, because it is fi lled with Christ- mas specials. Th ey can’t go shopping, because everything is closed. Th ey can’t visit their Christian friends, who are sitting with their nearest and dearest around Christmas trees. Th ey can’t go to church and, at least in many parts of the country, it’s too cold to go outside. . . .”10

Traditionally Jewish Americans took refuge in movie theaters or better still in Chinese restaurants where family dinners or reunion with friends took place. For generations, Chinese food was their Christmas dinner. Eating at a

10 David Margolick, “Jewish Comics Make It a Not So Silent Night.” New York Times, Dec. 24, 1994.

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Chinese restaurant could be a warm family reunion or a fun social gathering. But it was not a celebration of the religious aspect of Christmas day. For many Jewish families, it became a popular thing to do during this most important American holiday. Th e busiest Chinese restaurants on Christmas day were always those located in or close to Jewish American communities. In 2003 a New York Times article entitled “For Some, Christmas Was Very Moo Shu,” reported that Christmas was usually the busiest day for Shu Lee West and its adjoining Shun Lee Café on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in New York City. From noon until 11 p.m., they would receive 900 orders for dinner and make 800 deliveries.11 Most of the patrons were Jewish for whom it had become a tradition to have a family dinner in a Chinese restaurant and watch a movie on Christmas day.

On November 24, 2006, a journalist with Baltimore Jewish Times wanted to fi nd out if it was a stereotype that most Jewish families dined at Chinese res- taurants and watched movies on Christmas day. After interviewing a number of local Jewish residents, the journalist concluded that it was. “Christmas Day is the perfect time to bond with friends and family over a good Chinese meal and the latest holiday blockbuster. So this year on Christmas Day, when you arrive at your favorite Chinese restaurant, take time to embrace your part in this unique Jewish tradition.”12

As loyal customers of Chinese restaurants for generations, Jewish Ameri- cans seemed to have developed their own preference and taste when eating Chinese food. Chow mein was obviously a favorite food item for many Jewish kids as Chuck selected it for the Christmas dinner. Roger Nash, former Presi- dent of the League of Canadian Poets, once published his collection of poems entitled In the Kosher Chow Mein Restaurant (1996) which won the Canadian Jewish Book Award for Poetry for 1997. Chow mein, Chopsuey, Kung Pao Chicken, or Moo Shu Pork were some of the most popular dishes with the Jewish Americans. Unlike many American kids who would ask for chicken soup noodle when they were sick, Jewish kids wanted Chinese meals for com- fort food. Jewish humorist Molly Katz once wrote: “Never mind chicken soup; when Jews need comfort, solace or medicinal nourishment, we dive for Moo Shu Pork” (Miller 2006: 450).13

11 Alex Witchel, “For Some, It Was a Very Moo Shu Christmas.” New York Times, Dec. 17, 2003.

12 Kimberly Trompeter, “Lo Mein and A Movie.” Baltimore Jewish Times. Baltimore: Nov. 24, 2006.

13 Miller, 450. See also Molly Katz, Jewish as a Second Language (New York: Workman, 1991), p. 67.

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Unlike other American customers, Jewish Americans became fans of Chi- nese cuisine as a group. Th eir acceptance of Chinese food was not an inciden- tal curiosity about an exotic cuisine on the part of some individual Jewish family, it was rather a collective fondness of almost the entire Jewish commu- nity in New York City. Th at was how eating Chinese became a tradition which was passed from one generation to another. In her book on Chinese restau- rants published in 2008, New York Times journalist Jennifer Lee (2008: 96) wrote: “Th e average American Reform Jew is more likely to know how to use chopsticks than how to write the Hebrew alphabet. Chinese food on Christ- mas Day is as much an American Jewish ritual as the Seder on Passover (maybe even more so, once you take into account the non-observant Jews). When my friend Orli Bahcall was growing up, her family even had take-out Chinese food for family Shabbat dinner.” Th e Bahcall family was probably an extreme case but it indicated how far Chinese food had become part of the Jewish American culture.

Today third-generation Jewish Americans want to go beyond merely eating Chinese over Christmas. A 1994 New York Times article further reported that “this Christmas Eve 800 Jews in the Bay Area will do even better. Half of them would dine on an eight-course Chinese meal, complete with Yiddish fortune cookies. Th en all of them would indulge in a six-course feast of Jewish humor. Th e show was called ‘Kung Pao Kosher Comedy,’ but the Kosher referred to the jokes, not the cuisine.”14 Kung Pao chicken seemed to have become food for the brain when those Jewish Americans decided to found a comedy club for their Christmas occasion, and a Chinese dinner party had spawned an ethnic cultural show. When a show was named Kung Pao Kosher Comedy, it indicated that Chinese food had exerted more than just a dietary infl uence on Jewish Americans. As their designated Christmas dinner for generations, Chinese food became an expressive form of their American identity. As food historian Anna Miller has pointed out, eating Chinese “has become a meaningful symbol of American Judaism, with all its quirks and ceremonial selectivity. For in eating Chinese, the Jews found a modern means of express- ing their traditional cultural values. Th e savoring of Chinese food is now a ritualized celebration of immigration, education, family, community, and continuity” (Miller 2006: 458).

14 David Margolick, “Jewish Comics Make It a Not So Silent Night.” New York Times, Dec. 24, 1994.

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Imagined Safe Treyf

Gaye Tuchman and Harry G. Levine interviewed over 100 Jewish people about their experiences with Chinese food most of whom found Chinese food to be “safe treyf.” In Jewish culture, food, especially meat, should be processed and prepared according to kashruth (dietary laws) and such food is called kosher. In 1923, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations started a pro- gram of offi cial kashruth supervision and certifi cation. In 1934, the New York State passed a Kosher Law enforced by the Bureau of Kosher Law in its Depart- ment of Agriculture. In the fi rst decades of the 20th century, there were 10,000 kosher butcher shops in the United States (Gabaccia 1998: 69-70). Food that was prepared without following kashruth was “treyf. ” Chinese food was “treyf ” but somehow appeared safe enough for Jewish people to eat. In reality, Chi- nese food was anything but kosher. Jewish dietary laws, for example, forbade the consumption of pork, shrimp or lobsters. In Chinese cooking, these were common ingredients and frequently consumed. When Chinese restaurants served mainly Chinese customers, their food was far from being “safe treyf.” According to Beck’s 1898 book, New York’s Chinatown, roasted pig was a regu- lar dish among Chinese because of their fondness for pork. He wrote: “Next to rice, pig’s meat is probably the most popular dish of their ordinary diet. . . . Young pigs roasted whole are considered the acme of prepared meats. . . . Th ey must be freshly killed and addressed with care. Th e skin must be thoroughly scraped and cleaned, and the entrails carefully removed. Th e entire carcass, including the head, tail and feet, with the tongue and ears, is used, each part being supposed to possess a particular relish which it imparts to the whole” (Beck 1898: 70). Beck’s description showed how Chinese food and cooking tradition was transplanted in its original form when Chinese restaurants mainly served Chinese patrons. Chinese food was obviously not kosher as pork fi gured prominently in it.

Another un-kosher element in Chinese food culture was the use of animal intestines. According to kashruth law, slaughtering animal should be per- formed by a single cut across the throat of an animal to a deep and precise depth with a sharp blade. Proper slaughtering should be swift and painless to an animal and ended in complete draining of the blood. In traditional Jewish cooking, meat was soaked in salt shortly after slaughtering in order to thor- oughly drain the blood. Kosher rule forbade the consumption of animal blood though some Jewish people did eat animal organ food. Th e early version of chopsuey included ingredients of animal intestines. In Wong Chin Foo’s description in 1888, chopsuey was “a mixture of chicken’s livers and gizzards,

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fungi, bamboo buds, pig’s tripe, and bean sprouts stewed with spices.”15 In stir-fried Chinese dishes, fresh intestines were not necessarily depleted of blood as the Chinese did not slaughter animals according to the kashruth. Moreover, Chinese cooking used animal blood. In fact, pork blood was often used like tofu to be stir-fried as a dish or slow-boiled as a soup. Many Chinese believed that this dish helped them digest any pig’s hair that was not thor- oughly removed during the process of slaughtering and skin scraping. It is still a popular dish in Guangdong.

Chinese culinary culture was rich and diverse. It encompassed a whole range of fl avors ranging from spicy hot to sour sweet representing provincial or regional food traditions. It also comprised a variety of ingredients and ways of preparation that catered to diff erent religious groups such as Buddhist veg- etarians or Chinese Muslims. Certain vegetables such as green beans could have healing properties as well. In fact, Chinese herbal medicine consisted of hundreds of diff erent plants and animal body parts. Th ough fl avors and cook- ing traditions diff ered from region to region, Chinese in diff erent parts of the country shared some signifi cant similarities in their culinary culture. People lived mainly on a staple food such as rice, wheat, corn or other crops rather than meat. A typical Chinese meal consisted of two components — a staple food and side dishes. Th e staple food was usually rice, steamed bread, noodles or baked bread. Th e side dishes were usually cooked vegetables and some meat especially pork as cattle were valuable animals used for farming. (In Chinese Muslim food, however, beef and mutton were the major red meats used in cookery.) Cattle milk was seldom used in Chinese cuisine as it was rare and considered a luxury drunk for its nutrition. As meat was valuable, every part of a slaughtered animal was consumed including the intestines as described by Beck above. In fact, the intestines could be made into a variety of tasty dishes in Chinese cuisine.

Th e cooking of Chinese food included deep frying, stir-frying, boiling, bak- ing, steaming, roasting, braising, stewing, poaching, slow boiling in clay pot, and many other procedures. However, the most common way to make a dish was to chop or slice the meat or vegetables into small pieces and stir-fry them with drops of oil in a wok. Many ordinary Chinese families cooked their dishes this way. Interestingly it was this method of cooking that allowed some Chi- nese dishes to pass for “safe treyf.” To prepare chopsuey and chow mein, for example, the Chinese cook chopped up or minced the pork into small, thin

15 Wong Chin Foo, “Th e Chinese in New York.” Cosmopolitan 5 (Mar.-Oct.1888): 297-311.

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pieces and stir-fried it with a variety of vegetables or noodles. In this mode of preparation, off ensive ingredients were not easily discernible while the green onion, ginger, and garlic brought out the fl avor unique to Chinese dishes which the Jewish patrons found especially appealing. In fact, wonton became a favorite dish of many Jewish people because the tiny dumplings were fi lled with fi nely minced pork, chopped up green onions, ginger, seasoned with salt, and boiled in chicken soup. It was the preparation and cooking process that was the key to making Chinese dishes acceptable to Jewish immigrants and their children. Th e Jewish customers knew that pork was part of chop- suey, chow mein or wonton, but that did not stop them from frequenting Chinese restaurants.

Another important element that made Chinese food “safe treyf ” was the fact that Chinese cooking did not mix milk and meat which was strictly pro- hibited in Kashruth. Jewish culture did not allow the consumption of calf meat together with milk from the mother cow. Neither was it permitted to cook the young goat in its mother’s milk. After eating meat, the Jews would wait at least three hours before consuming any dairy product though it was sometimes permissible to eat fi sh and dairy products at the same time. Th e rule of separa- tion between meat and dairy products applied not only to the consumption of food but also to the cooking utensils and dinner ware. A strict kosher family usually had two sets of pots, pans and dinner ware, one for meat and the other for dairy products. Th e two sets were cleaned and dried separately in dish- washers or with towels. As mentioned above, cow milk was rarely used in Chinese cooking. In fact, only wealthy urban families could aff ord it as a nutritious drink for breakfast. Almost no Chinese dishes used milk or other dairy products as ingredients. As pointed out by historian Donna Gabaccia, “Most of the food consumed by Jewish diners in Chinese restaurants was probably not strictly kosher. But since Chinese chefs chopped the forbidden pork and shellfi sh very fi nely, off ered a wide range of poultry dishes, never used milk (which kashruth laws forbade in meat dishes), and served tea (also popular with Russian Jews), a chopsuey meal thus off ered Jewish New Yorkers a so called ‘safe treyf,’ a combination of the familiar and the forbidden” (Gab- accia 1998: 104).

However, while agreeing with Tuchman and Levine, and Gabaccia, I want to point out that the ingredients and ways of cooking Chinese dishes were results of historical or culinary coincidences as Jewish Americans developed an aff ection for Chinese food. In many ways, Chinese food as safe treyf was more imagined than real. What brought the two groups together was the social context in which they lived. Both were ethnic minorities and immigrant groups faced with racial bigotry and discrimination; both felt the pressure to

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assimilate into mainstream American society. Both groups brought with them their old and rich cultural traditions and upon arrival had to adapt themselves to American culture. Th e Chinese community was not infl uenced by preju- dice against the Jewish people. Chinese restaurants did not put up any reli- gious decorations that made Jewish people uncomfortable, unlike some of the Italian restaurants. Moreover, chopsuey was an important American food icon and Chinese restaurants were part of the metropolitan New York life that Jewish immigrants wanted to be a part of.

In reality, what attracted Jewish immigrants was not Chinese cuisine in its original form but Americanized Chinese dishes like chopsuey, chow mein or egg foo yong ( foo yong dan). On the menus of Chinese restaurants in the 1890s, Beck found expensive dishes like shark’s fi n, bird’s nest or sturgeon head, each costing two dollars per dish. Meanwhile there were also dishes costing between 35 and 75 cents like “Chow Mein (Fried Noodles), Foo Yong Dan (Ham and Egg Omelet), or Chop Suey” (Beck 1898: 49-50). When chopsuey houses spread all over New York City and catered mainly to American patrons, their menus carried dishes like chicken chopsuey, beef chopsuey, or chow mein rather than shark’s fi n or bird’s nest. Also, those Americanized Chinese dishes no longer used animal intestines and consisted of only sliced meat and chopped celery, onion, and bean sprout. As an open and fl exible culinary system, Chi- nese food culture allowed the Chinese to continuously explore diff erent and new ways of cooking. By the time it appeared as “safe treyf ” to the Jewish people, Chinese food had already transformed itself into a popular American ethnic cuisine.

Chinese Restaurants in Jewish Communities

In America, chopsuey houses appeared wherever there was a sizable Jewish population. Chinese proprietors caught on to the Jewish partiality for their food and motivated themselves to establish restaurants in Jewish communities to cater to their special needs. In the 1920s, the Jewish patrons supported nearly 30 chopsuey houses within walking distance of Ratner’s, the mainstay kosher dairy on Delancey and Essex streets. Chinese food became institution- alized as the parents took it home every Sunday night for the children ( Joselit 1994: 214). “In places like New York City, eating Chinese food became inter- twined with the traditions of other ethnic groups, especially that of Jewish immigrants. Many Jewish families faithfully visited their favorite Chinese res- taurants every Sunday night. At a Chinese food history exhibition in New York, there were menus selected from Glatt Wok, Kosher Chinese Restaurants,

94 Haiming Liu / Journal of Chinese Overseas 6 (2010) 80-101

and Takeout in Monsey, N.Y. and Wok Tov in Cedarhurst, New York.”16 Th e Chinese restaurant became a fi xture in most Jewish neighborhoods, almost as commonplace as the kosher butcher shop. Describing this phenomenon in the 1930s, Mimi Sheraton, a food columnist and reporter of New York Times, wrote in 1980, “Even 50 years ago, in the otherwise gastronomically homoge- neous neighborhoods of Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx, Chinese restau- rants fl ourished, all Cantonese, but with far blander and more limited menus than one today. . . . Cantonese dishes such as egg roll, chicken chow mein, moo goo gai pan and wonton are standards in the repertory of kosher caterers for weddings and bar mizvahs. Th ose same dishes appear as a once-a-week treat in the faculty and student cafeteria of the Jewish Th eological Seminary.”17 By the 1950s, many American Jewish families were making weekly routine visits to their favorite local Chinese restaurants.

In the 1930s and 1940s, unlike those fancy Chinese restaurants such as Ruby Foo and Lum Fong’s in Manhattan, chopsuey houses in Jewish neigh- borhoods were small, often on the second fl oor above shops and always deco- rated in red lacquer with pagoda motifs and red, gold and black tassels. Th eir price was cheap, especially for lunch. A child’s meal costing only 25 cents included a soup or tomato juice, a main course with rice and fried noodles and canned pineapple or ice cream for dessert. Tea was always free. Adult patrons paid 40 cents for larger portions of the same choices.18 Th e modest price in Chinese restaurants meant that many poor Jewish families could eat out from time to time. Sheraton observed that Chinese restaurant operators sometimes followed the Jewish communities and “one of the better known facts of restau- rant life is that Chinese restaurants are more likely to do well where they are in easy reach of a Jewish clientele, more especially if the food they serve is Cantonese.”19

Jimmy Eng came from Taishan, Guangdong Province, in 1936. He worked in laundries and restaurants in New York City for a long time and was often sad that his father did not have the money to send him to school. When he noticed the Jewish fondness for Chinese food, he had a vision to establish a restaurant career with Jewish Americans as his potential clients. In 1953, he had the opportunity to buy a small Chinese restaurant called King Yum in Queens, New York. Th e price was $8,000, a huge sum, but Eng had noticed that Jewish families were moving from the city center to the peripheries.

16 Michael Luo, “As All American As Egg FooYong.” New York Times, Sept. 24, 2004. 17 Mimi Sheraton, “Moo Goo Gai Pan and Strictly Kosher.” New York Times, Dec. 27, 1980. 18 Mimi Sheraton, “A Jewish Yen For Chinese.” New York Times, Sept. 23, 1990. 19 Mimi Sheraton, “Restaurants: Japanese-French and Chinese-Jewish.” New York Times, Mar.

11, 1977.

Haiming Liu / Journal of Chinese Overseas 6 (2010) 80-101 95

Th ough the neighborhood of this restaurant showed few signs of human activ- ities at that time, it would change later. Soon more and more Jewish families moved in. Eng was able to transform his tiny storefront into a massive red- walled banquet hall with Chinese lanterns swinging from the ceiling (Miller 2006: 453). In the 1980s, when Hunan, Sichuan and other Chinese restau- rants replaced many traditional chopsuey houses, King Yum still maintained its Americanized Chinese food and served egg foo yong and chicken chopsuey, a specialty of the house. According to a New York Sun article in 2006, “King Yum has been around since the 1940s, and it long ago perfected its shtick. When you open the door, you’re greeted by a glassed-in waterfall, and things just get better from there. Th e bar has a thatched ‘roof,’ and the dining room is full of bamboo accents. Octogenarian owner James K. Eng, a Queens leg- end, diligently hobnobs his way from table to table, making sure everyone’s having a good time.”20

Some Jewish women learned how to cook Chinese food. In another article, Mimi Sheraton recalled how her mother cooked Chinese. “My cross-culinary experiences began in Brooklyn in the late 1930s and early 40s, when my mother would try to duplicate the dishes we favored in local Chinese restau- rants. Th e longstanding love aff airs Jews have had with Chinese food (particu- larly, the slightly overcooked mild-fl avored Cantonese specialties) was a well-known fact of the restaurant business in Flatbush fi fty years ago. Even many Jews who observed kosher dietary rules at home went to Chinese restau- rants, and for those who were not kosher, Chinese was the traditional takeout fare on Sunday nights.” Women were typically gatekeepers of their own ethnic culture. Many Jewish women were familiar with kashruth rule and some were even involved in animal slaughtering in order to prepare Jewish traditional food properly. When Sheraton’s mother learned how to cook Chinese dishes from scratch for lunches or late-supper parties or named her own kreplach wontons, it indicated how deeply Chinese food had become part of Jewish American life. Her mother used skillets and saucepans rather than wok and substituted ingredients such as fresh ginger or Chinese cabbage that were only available in Chinese grocery stores. But if she wanted a more authentic touch, she would buy fried noodles, bean sprouts and fortune cookies from a local restaurant. Her favorite recipes included Egg-roll Blintz, shrimp with lobster sauce, Subgum Chicken and shrimp chow mein.21

Th e baby boomer generation of Jewish Americans often recalled how their parents routinely visited Chinese restaurants. According to one Jewish Amer- ican’s recollection of his “bubbe” (“grandma” in Yiddish): “She was boiling up

20 Paul Lukas, “Th e Right Chinese Food for Christmas.” New York Sun, Dec. 20, 2006. 21 Sheraton, “A Jewish Yen For Chinese For Chinese.” New York Times, Sept. 23, 1990.

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chicken feet in her soup years and years ago when the menu in the three or four Chinese restaurants in America could be printed on a fortune cookie note. ‘Chop Suey.’ It said. And, on weekends, they added ‘Chow Mein.’ ”22 Another Jewish American recollected, “Growing up Jewish in Brooklyn, Chi- nese food is a birthright, and I was weaned on chicken chow mein, the quint- essential Chinese-American dish.”23 When I mentioned accidentally to a Jewish American colleague about my research, she replied that it perhaps refl ected a kind of “cosmopolitanism” among Jews and also the fact that “Jewish” cooking in the U.S. was typically bland German-style cooking. Her parents’ generation would typically go to Chinese restaurants once or twice a week; and her generation has expanded this habit to include Th ai, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Korean food.24 Chopsuey functioned as a cultural bridge and led American clients to other Asian cuisines.

Today there are many fi ne kosher Chinese restaurants in New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia and other areas of Jewish American concentration. Chao Lin, owner of Lin’s Kosher Chinese Kitchen in Manville, New Jersey, for example, invited the Chabad House of Somerset County, a Jewish cultural and community organization, to park its mobile sukkah outside his restaurant for several evenings during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot in 2003. Lin had worked in kosher Chinese restaurants throughout New Jersey for ten years before he owned his kosher certifi ed restaurant.25 Th ere were also many kosher Chinese food recipes available on-line or in print. Familiarity with Chinese food enabled a number of Jewish entrepreneurs to build their careers and for- tunes on their connection with Chinese cuisine. Eddie Scher, a businessman who lived in Felton, California, developed a monstrously popular brand of Asian-themed sauces widely sold in Trader Joes’s, Whole Foods, and Dean & DeLuca. He drove around with the company name on his vanity license plate: soy vay. Kari-Out, the largest distributor of soy sauce packets in the country, was owned by a Jewish family, the Epsteins of Westchester, New York (Lee 2008: 97). Serving Jewish communities and cooking kosher chow mein became life-long careers for some immigrant Chinese.

22 Ted Roberts, “Th ere’s Nothing New under the Sun (Especially Chicken Feet).” www. jewishworkreview.com/0298/chicken.html, accessed in July 2007.

23 Pete Cherches, “Chinese Food, the Early Years.” http://petercherches.blogsort.com/2007/ 07chinese-food-early-years.html, accessed in July 2007.

24 Th is information is based on an email exchange with Laurie Shrage on May 21, 2007. 25 Beth Kressel, “Adaptation helps diners enjoy Jewish holiday.” Hillsborough Beacon, Oct. 23,


Haiming Liu / Journal of Chinese Overseas 6 (2010) 80-101 97

American Identity through Chinese Food

For many Jewish immigrants and their families, eating at chop suey houses was their fi rst American restaurant experience. Unlike those European immi- grant groups who started their American experience as farmers, miners or rail- road workers, Jewish immigrants began their American journey as city dwellers. Dining out allowed them to explore and satisfy their curiosity about urban American life, develop a new taste as well as a new perspective on food culture. Chinese food was not the only option. Jewish, French, Italian, German, Greek, Russian, or other ethnic cuisines were also available. New York had a greater variety of restaurants than any other cities. In eating out in Chinese restau- rants, Jewish immigrants realized that food consumers in America had more opportunities than people anywhere else to constantly try diff erent ethnic foods brought in by diff erent waves of immigrants. Eating diff erent ethnic foods was a lifestyle in the metropolitan New York City.

At the turn of the 20th century, many ethnic and immigrant communities in New York, including Jewish Americans, had their own restaurant business. In 1899, the Jewish community of Lower East Side in New York City boasted 140 groceries, 131 kosher butchers, 36 bakeries, nine bread stands, and ten delicatessens (Gabaccia 1998: 64). Jewish immigrants also had their own restaurants and grocery stores. In the 1930s, Jewish restaurants did about $292 million in annual trade. But most of the early Jewish restaurants were simple and undecorated serving only kosher food and catering mostly to Jewish clients. Many of the restaurants were places for Jewish social gatherings (Gabaccia 1998: 81). Th e fl avor and cooking could be diff erent among the restaurants as Jewish immigrants came from diff erent countries. Th ere was no standard traditional Jewish food for everyone. New York also claimed roughly 10,000 Italian restaurants in the 1930s. Every district, city and province of Italy was allegedly represented in New York by its restaurants (Gabaccia 1998: 81). Ethnic fl avor was a cultural capital to attract patrons from the same home region. Functioning as “meeting place[s]” of “social gathering” for fellow townsmen, those Italian, Jewish or other ethnic restaurants often served their own ethnic customers only. Contrarily, Chinese restaurants served mainly non-Chinese patrons and chopsuey was an American invention to suit New Yorkers’ palate.

Like many immigrant and ethnic businesses, long service hours and low prices characterized chopsuey houses. But Chinese proprietors modifi ed their food more than any other ethnic groups. Th e food at chopsuey houses carried more ethnic label than ethnic fl avor. Chopsuey, chow mein or wonton were all re-invented American versions of Chinese dishes, which many Chinese

98 Haiming Liu / Journal of Chinese Overseas 6 (2010) 80-101

immigrants tended to shy away from. Th ey were Chinese in name but Ameri- can in fl avor. As an ethnic business, chopsuey houses allowed Chinese immi- grants to make a living through self-employment. With their cheap prices, foreign names, but localized fl avors, chopsuey houses lived up to Americans’ culinary and cultural expectations of Chinese food. Th at was the social con- text in which chopsuey became a typical New York food for both local and out-of-town customers.

As portrayed in American artist Edward Hopper’s painting, a polished chopsuey house was not necessarily a cheap food joint in Chinatown, it could be a trendy place where middle class New Yorkers eat out.26 Th ough many chopsuey houses were not as trendy as the one portrayed in Hopper’s painting, they were still popular eateries that embodied the city’s metropolitan spirit. Th at made chopsuey houses diff erent from other ethnic restaurants. Refl ecting on his Chinese restaurant experience, a Jewish man said: “I felt about Chinese restaurants the same way I did about the Metropolitan Museum of Art — they were the two most strange and fascinating places my parents took me to, and I loved them both.”27

In the 1920s, the rapid growth of the middle and lower-middle class city population created a booming restaurant market in New York. Th e economi- cal recession of the 1930s also pushed more dining-out customers to ethnic restaurants such as chopsuey houses as food could cost less in Harlem, Little Italy, and Chinatown. As food historian Richard J. Hooker (1978: 323) wrote, “New York City, large and cosmopolitan, shared in all the new trends in eating out. Great wealth supported luxurious restaurants; immigrants from many countries promoted variety; and the heavy concentration of people in Man- hattan made the city a laboratory for space-saving and labor-saving techniques in food service.” Many Chinese restaurants displayed their own fl air of cre- ativeness and adventure that boosted their popularity. While Chinese immi- grant cooks substantially modifi ed their original food ways, some Chinese restaurants served self-made liquor for demanding diners despite the Volstead Act (Prohibition Law) during the 1920s. Th e Tea Th at Burns, authored by Edward Hall (1998), was the title of a four-generation New York Chinese family history. Th e title was an obvious allusion to how Chinese restaurants, like Italian and other ethnic restaurants, sold self-made liquor during that historical period.

26 “Chop Suey” is one of the most famous pieces of art by Edward Hopper who accomplished it in1929. To view Hopper’s painting, see http://www.artchive.com/viewer/z.html, accessed in July 2007.

27 Gaye Tuchman and Harry G. Levine, “Safe Treyf.” Brandeis Review 24 (1993).

Haiming Liu / Journal of Chinese Overseas 6 (2010) 80-101 99

In the 1920s and 1930s, a considerable number of Jewish Americans achieved material success and middle or lower-middle class status. Daniel Rogers wrote that their respect for the learned man and enthusiastic participa- tion in American education was a key to their rapid upward social mobility. By the 1920s, Harvard, Yale and other elite universities had established quotas to keep the number of Jewish students below a certain level as they constituted a conspicuous percentage of the student population on those campuses. “Nev- ertheless, Jews were already overrepresented in these colleges, as they soon would be in certain of the learned professions, notably law and medicine” (Daniels 1990: 230). In those decades, as more and more Jewish Americans dined out, they became mostly regular patrons of Chinese restaurants. In the eyes of Jewish Americans, chopsuey houses were an integral part of the unique and intriguing life of New York City. Eating Chinese food was the beginning of their adaptation and assimilation process into American urban culture.

In the 1930s, Jewish food culture was also changing. Th eir delicatessens in New York began to market themselves as eateries for everyone rather than just for Jews. In fact, Jewish Americans made many signifi cant contributions to the American food market. Haagen-Dazs Ice Cream, though sounding like a Danish name, was invented by Reuben Mattus, son of a Jewish immigrant. Sara Lee and its famous cheese cake were created in 1926 by Charles Lubin, a Jewish American. Arnold Reuben took the lead in reaching out to wider groups of multi-ethnic patrons in New York with his famous sandwiches, cheese cakes and apple pancakes. Reuben’s Restaurant and other Jewish delis became full-fl edged restaurants through their oversized portions, friendly waiters and twenty-four-hour service. His “Jewish” sandwiches, however, were not only stuff ed with ham but also Swiss cheese. Chow mein was probably one of the few “safe treyf ” items on the restaurant’s menu, many of which were no longer kosher foods. Eventually Jewish delis became synonymous with good sandwich stores across the country, and like cheesecake and bagel, served all- American clients. It is interesting to note that chow mein was part of their menu while Jewish American restaurants broke away from their orthodox food restrictions.


At the turn of the last century the Chinese and Jewish communities met and shared residential proximity in New York City as two minority groups. Th e enterprising Chinese immigrants changed their cooking and restaurant food to cater to American taste. Th ough little known in China, chopsuey, chow

100 Haiming Liu / Journal of Chinese Overseas 6 (2010) 80-101

mein and egg foo yong became famous American versions of Chinese dishes popular with many local residents, especially the Jewish Americans. Living in close proximity to New York’s Chinatown many Jewish immigrants and their families frequented Chinese restaurants and became familiar with Chinese food. However, chopsuey houses in New York embodied not only Chinese ethnicity but also metropolitan ‘Americanness.’ As food historian Anna Miller pointed out, “Eating Chinese was cosmopolitan, sophisticated and secular” (Miller 2006: 456). Th rough Chinese food, Jewish Americans became more metropolitan, more adapted to American urban life and gradually broke away from their dietary rules which were religious, restrictive and symbolic of the old world from where they came. Th eir attachment to Chinese food was part of their American identity formation process. Partly based on this cultural reinterpretation process, the Chinese restaurants prospered and won their unlikely customers among the Jews.

It was a rare but interesting historic case that eating the food of one ethnic group became an expression of identity for another group. Th e change and evolution of Chinese food and that of Jewish eating habit was taking place almost simultaneously. The dynamic interaction between the two cultures refl ected the complexity of the American ethnic identity formation process. Th e innovation of Chinese Americans in their food tradition and their determined eff orts to enter the American restaurant market, and the longing for a new cultural identity on the part of Jewish Americans have made this meaningful episode in American ethnic history possible.


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