By Rabbi Rachel Esserman
When I was growing up, there was only one Chinese restaurant in Broome County. I don’t remember anything about it except it was located on the Vestal Parkway, which in those days was a fairly long trip from Endwell. On the other hand, I do have fond memories of the Chinese restaurant we regularly ate at when we visited my grandparents in Brooklyn. My father’s parents lived in an apartment building a few blocks from Flatbush Avenue and on the corner of Flatbush was a Chinese restaurant. My mother would order a pu pu platter, which seemed very exotic because I had never seen anything like it before.
I learned about what is now my favorite type of Chinese food when I was in college. A friend and I were spending the summer in Washington, DC, and we went to what was a rather fancy Chinese restaurant. That was my introduction to Szechuan food. The waiter (an American) was snooty, that is until I accidentally popped one of the Szechuan peppers into my mouth. He must have noticed the look on my face because he came over to our table and told me to drink warm tea, not the cold water I was reaching for. He became very friendly after that, talking about how members of the Chinese embassy would eat there and pop those peppers into their mouth like they weren’t at all spicy.
When I was growing up, I didn’t know that Chinese food was popular with Jews. We didn’t spend Christmas Eve or Christmas Day at a Chinese restaurant. I only started doing so as an adult (OK, rather late as an adult), but I know lots of people who think that the Jewish way to celebrate Christmas is with Chinese food and a movie.
Why did so many Jews feel it was OK to eat Chinese food, even if they wouldn’t eat dishes with the same ingredients in another restaurant? The general consensus of food historians is that Jewish comfort with Chinese food is due to the fact that the ingredients are often chopped into small pieces. This allows them to ignore the bits that are treif. Why eat it on Christmas? That answer is easy: Chinese restaurants are one of the few restaurants open on that day.
One interesting experience I had in Philadelphia in the late 1990s was eating at a kosher Chinese restaurant. A friend, who was a vegetarian, had recently become Orthodox and she wanted Chinese food that offered a kosher meat substitute. I was game to try. It was really funny to see a kosher menu that included “lobster” and “shrimp,” neither of which were the real thing. I remember enjoying the meal and wouldn’t mind eating there again. But that friend moved from Philly and friends I see there now are not Jewish so there’s no point in trying to convince them to eat non-meat/non-fish food when they’ll eat the real thing.
In the meantime, Chinese and other Asian food has flourished in Broome County. It’s hard to believe that it was once hard to find here. Unfortunately, there is still no kosher Chinese restaurant in the area, but that doesn’t deter many Jews from enjoying eating Chinese on Christmas and other days.