Why we are sweet-and-sour stricken

Why do Jews love Chinese food? As San Francisco’s monthlong Israel China Cultural Festival kicks into high gear — and as Los Angeles sinks its teeth into a new kosher Chinese egg roll food truck — it’s an auspicious time to consider our generations-long affair with all things wok and wonton.

This year, writing for Time magazine, noted food writer Josh Ozersky took a stab (with a chopstick?) at explaining the Jewish-Chinese food connection.

After pooh-poohing various theories for the affinity — such as Jews and Chinese are the “two largest non-Christian immigrant groups in the U.S.” — he proposes his own. Basically that since Chinese food “is eminently suited to takeout,” and Jewish families are “intensely familial, home-loving and nuclear,” and love eating at home, Chinese food is our favorite.

“I think that we, as a people, prize comfort above all else, both emotionally and physically. To sit in the living room with a plate of lo mein and half an egg roll is about as safe and stable as life gets for us,” Ozersky wrote.

Food for thought, but perhaps just as an appetizer. It is true: The Jewish family is central to our lives, and eateries that serve family-style, like Chinese restaurants do, give us an opportunity to break both noodles and fortune cookies together.

But going deeper into that menu, I think our affair with Chinese food is also related to a Jewish tradition that goes all the way back to Abraham — that of hospitality. For our family and guests, we have a need to show an abundance of food, and what better hits that spot than a table full of appetizing orders from column A through D?

Also, in a food culture historically based on kashrut, where the milchig (dairy) needs to be kept separate from fleishig (meat), it is not surprising that Jews have shown an affinity for a cuisine that does not use dairy products. In the Jewish dietary laws, only specific categories of meat, fish and poultry are acceptable, and on a menu where many dishes are described by their ingredients — such as “beef with broccoli” or “Kung Pao chicken” — even nonobservant Jews who abstain from pork and seafood can easily avoid them.

But all this still doesn’t explain the line of Jewish diners at a good Chinese restaurant, kosher or otherwise, or the apparent market niche for a food truck that serves kosher egg rolls.

In explanation, Gaye Tuchman and Harry G. Levine, in their scholarly essay on the subject (you knew there had to be one), “Safe Treyf, New York Jews and Chinese Food,” say in part, that the desire to eat Chinese came from a need to feel “un-Jewish” and cosmopolitan.

Funny, but stepping into a Jade Palace or a Golden Dragon has always made me feel very Jewish, and has provided a kind of minority status relief.

I am also wondering whether Chinese food is now so integrated into Jewish family histories that it serves simply as a comfort food — one that fragrantly reminds us of simchas and good times with our families and friends. At our wedding rehearsal party, my father took us to a favorite Chinese restaurant. At my kid’s graduations and at one of their bar mitzvah parties, we either dined in, or ordered out.

And especially when it’s raining, I want to have Chinese, since that’s when, while I was growing up, my mother would reach for the takeout menu.

A few months ago, I had the urge to drive to a place where food trucks congregate for a street food lunch. I walked right by Indian, German and Vietnamese themed trucks. But when I got to the kosher egg roll truck (M.O. Eggrolls), with its “Jewnese” cuisine, and saw that their menu included an egg roll named “Challah Pain Perdu” and another called “Tongue Chinois,” I felt right at home.

Edmon J. Rodman
wrote a version of this piece for his blog “Guide for the Jewplexed” at www.virtualjerusalem.com/blogs_jewplexed.php.

Edmon Rodman
Edmon J. Rodman

Edmon J. Rodman writes about Jewish life from his home in Los Angeles and is the author of the weekly Guide for the Jewplexed on virtualjerusalem.com. Contact him at [email protected].