Food crosses cultures

Jennifer 8. Lee spoke before a packed audience at the Slifka Center on Wednesday about the affinity between American Chinese food and Jewish culture.
Jennifer 8. Lee spoke before a packed audience at the Slifka Center on Wednesday about the affinity between American Chinese food and Jewish culture. Photo by Zoe Gorman.

Why have Jews and Asians never persecuted each other? Perhaps because they share a craving for noodles.

Community members affiliated with the Asian American Cultural Center, the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life, the Yale Sustainable Food Project and the Taiwanese American Society gathered in the Slifka Center’s Kosher Kitchen on Wednesday for a kosher Chinese dinner and talk by Jennifer 8. Lee titled “Why Chow Mein is the Chosen Food of the Chosen People.” Lee, a Chinese-American journalist for The New York Times and author of “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles,” discussed the American influence on Chinese food and its connections with Jewish culture.

“In my exploration about Chinese food’s role in American culture, I discovered that there was probably no constituency that loved it more than American Jews,” Lee said. “Gefilte fish, Chinese takeout? You pick.”

Wednesday’s dinner, featuring typical Asian-American dishes such as the spring roll and the fortune cookie, opened at 5 p.m. and led up to the 7 p.m. talk. More than 200 people attended the dinner, and later filled every seat during the talk.

Lee’s informal presentation centered around several humorous anecdotes that occurred while she was researching Chinese food in America.

Lee began by expressing her love of Chinese food and her interest in Jewish-Chinese cultural connections. She expressed her fascination with Jewish-Chinese commodities such as pastrami fried rice, kosher Chinese cookbooks, and kosher restaurants with names such as “Shang-Chai Kosher Restaurant,” “Cho-Sen Garden” and “Genghis Cohen.”

Lee said that the point of her book is to “make people think twice about what it means to be American.”

Although Jews and Asians might seem a cultural continent apart, they identify with one another as American immigrants, Lee said. While most of New York flocks to midnight mass for Christmas, she added, the Jewish population frequents the Chinese restaurants.

Lee linked the Chinese and Jewish camaraderie to circumstances among immigrants and cultural compatibility. The Chinese would not threaten American jobs if they were doing women’s work — cooking in restaurants and cleaning in laundromats, while the Jews would not be looked down upon in the presence of the Chinese, she said. Both cultures work and eat out on Sundays and Christian holidays. Chinese food does not use dairy, which makes eating meat more kosher. Although pork, taboo to Jews who keep kosher, is prevalent in Chinese food, Lee said that many Jews felt more comfortable eating Chinese pork because it did not look like pork, which she labeled the Jewish “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

Although originally viewed as unsanitary and barbaric, Chinese food came to represent a way to be cosmopolitan at the turn of the 20th century, Lee said. The Chinese American creation, “Chop-Suey” or “Odds & Ends” was a pricey delicacy until the 1930s.

Lee has been gathering information around the globe to unlock the secrets — and ironies — of American Chinese food. Her culinary adventures include the quests to find General Tso (a hero during the 19th century Taiping rebellion who ate dog) and the origin of the fortune cookie (a Japanese tea cake of which most living in China know nothing). She exposed the terra cotta horses and warriors ubiquitous at the American chain P.F. Chang’s as symbols of death that conjured the image of a funeral parlor for her Chinese dinner companions.

Just as America has reshaped Chinese culture, the Chinese have begun a similar process. Lee said that she traced a community of Jews in China to a woman who knew very little Hebrew but who sold popular Jewish-Chinese paper cuttings. Lee said she found that bagels in China are cut into small pieces and stir-fried with cabbage and bean sprouts.

Attendees received Lee’s presentation with nearly continuous laughter.

“A lot of food I’ve eaten here isn’t really eaten in Hong Kong,” international student Jasmine Lau ’12 said. “It was very inspiring for me. I really admire [Lee’s] will to pursue an adventure and to follow leads.”

Rabbi Lina Zerbarini said that Dean Saveena Dhal, director of the Asian American Cultural Center, had e-mailed her about the event and that they had applied together for funding. Zerbarini said that this was an opportunity to bring two cultural branches of campus together.

But the talk was not the first instance of Jewish-Asian cultural fusion this year. On September 25th, the Slifka Center offered a Chinese Shabbat Dinner featuring kosher Asian delicacies and prayers over challah and wine. Students could use a meal swipe for both that dinner and the meal preceding Lee’s talk.

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