Kosher Chinese Christmas- An American Jewish Tradition

It appears that for over a century American Jews have eaten American Chinese food on Christmas.

In honor of this tradition I’ve decided to cook from the American Jewish Historical Society’s archive of Kosher Chinese cookbooks. The collection holds three volumes: Kosher Chinese Cookbook by Millie Chan, 1990; Chinese Kosher Cooking by Betty S. Goldberg, 1984; and The Kosher-Chinese Cookbook by Bob Grossman, 1963. From these three books, I’ve assembled a three-course meal you can make at home this year for your family or quarinpod.

“Chinese food on Christmas Day is as much an American Jewish ritual as the Seder on Passover, writes journalist Jennifer 8 Lee in her book, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles. Although no one knows when the tradition of feasting on Chinese food on December 25 became a universal activity for American Jews, we do have a sense of the reasons why it happened. Lee attributes the ritual to the fact that Jewish and Chinese immigrants didn’t share the same days of worship as the rest of predominantly Christian America. So simply, Chinese restaurants would be open on Christmas, and Jewish people were available to go to them. Particularly in New York City at the turn of the 20th century, the densely populated Jewish Lower East Side of Manhattan was a short walk to Chinatown on the west side.

Chinese cooking has also been called “safe traif” by some. It uses no dairy, so it wouldn’t break Kosher laws by combining meat and milk. Much of Chinese-American cuisine does use a lot of pork, however; but it’s often cut up so small that one could ignore it if one was so inclined.

THE MENU

WONTON SOUP

For our feast, our first course of Wonton Soup comes from Millie Chan’s Kosher Chinese Cookbook. Chan is from a Chinese-American family, and her parents owned a Chinese restaurant in San Antonio, Texas. Her large extended family instilled in her a love of cooking traditional Cantonese dishes. She grew up to become a cooking instructor, and after working with a student that kept Kosher, decided to adapt many of her recipes to Kosher laws. She ended up teaching Kosher Chinese cooking classes at Manhattans' Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue for many years, and laughed that, “I am often asked by my students … ‘Are you Jewish?’ I smile and say no.”

Chan found many comparisons between traditional Chinese and Jewish cuisines. She compared folded wontons with a meat filling to kreplach, and suggests, “Serve wonton soup rather than the traditional matzah ball soup.” I think it’s a good suggestion, so here’s Chan’s recipe for Wonton Soup.

From Kosher Chinese Cookbook by Millie Chan, 1990

Serves 6 as part of a multi-course meal. Folding wontons is a great family activity.

For the Wontons:

1 pound ground turkey

1 tablespoon minced scallions

1 teaspoon finely minced fresh ginger

1 tablespoons soy sauce

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon sugar

1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil

1 teaspoon cornstarch

2 teaspoons rice wine or water

1 egg

1 tablespoon corn oil

90 wonton wrappers

 

For the Soup:

7 cups chicken broth

1 1/2 teaspoons Kosher salt

1 teaspoon fresh cracked black pepper

1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil

40 wontons

2 tablespoons minced scallions

Soy sauce, hot sauce, chili oil

  1. Combine the filling ingredients and mix in one direction until the mixture is light and sticky.

  1. Keep wonton wrappers and finished wontons covered with a moist dish towel to prevent drying. 

Place a wrapper on the counter with one corner pointing toward you. Put ½ teaspoon of the filling on this corner. 

 

 

 

 

 

Roll the corner over the filling to form a roll about halfway up the wrapper. Moisten the left and right corners of the rolled wrapper with water, bring around the right corner and stick it on top of the left corner. Press the corners to seal. Repeat until all the filling is used. Will make about 90 wontons; extras can be frozen to eat later.

 
  1. Bring the broth to a boil in a large pot. Add the salt, pepper and sesame oil.

  1. Turn off heat. Add wontons. Return to high heat and bring the pot back to a boil. Then lower the heat to a simmer and cook gently for ten minutes. 

  1. Prepare bowls with a dash of soy sauce and a pinch of scallions. Ladle soup into bowls. Invite guests to add soy sauce, scallions, sesame oil, hot sauce, and chili oil to their taste.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHINESE FIVE SPICE BRISKET

The main course is a recipe I developed inspired by Betty S. Goldberg’s Chinese Kosher Cooking. Goldberg received her first Chinese cookbook on her first wedding anniversary, and consequently developed an obsession with Chinese cuisines as well as a library of Chinese cooking literature. Her recipe for Spiced Cold Brisket seemed like the perfect mashup of cuisines for a Christmas day main course. I noticed the spicing she suggested was similar to the flavor profile of Chinese Five Spice Powder (五香粉), a blend usually consisting of star anise, fennel, cinnamon, cloves and Szechuan peppercorns, but which can also include ginger, nutmeg, turmeric, and orange peel. I created the following recipe for a Chinese Five Spice powder-rubbed brisket. The roast is herbal and deeply savory, and the soy sauce marinade locks in the moisture.  

The spice blend can be made from scratch, can be found in many grocery stores, or ordered online. 

For a 2-4 pound brisket (double or triple for larger roasts)

 

1 cinnamon stick

3 whole cloves

1/2 teaspoon ground peppercorn

2 tablespoons honey

2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar

1 cup soy sauce

2 tablespoons Chinese Five Spice Powder

1 tablespoon Szechuan peppercorns or fresh cracked black peppercorns (optional)

2 tablespoons oil

  1. Combine the first six ingredients in a one gallon plastic bag. Seal and squish around until honey is dissolved. Rinse brisket and add to bag. Seal and refrigerate 12-24 hours, flipping over at least once.

  1. Remove brisket from bag, reserving marinade. Rub all over with about 2 tablespoons of Chinese Five Spice Powder and, optionally, Szechuan or black peppercorns.

  1. Preheat the oven to 275°. Add oil to a heavy-bottomed dutch oven. Heat oil over medium high heat until smoking; add brisket, searing on all sides until browned, about 10 minutes total.

  1. Add reserved marinade and two cups of water. Bring to a simmer. Turn off heat and move dutch oven into oven, and roast uncovered 45 minutes per pound. When done, the roast will be tender when pricked and a thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the roast should read around 200 degrees (ten degrees above or below is just fine).

  1. Serve hot as part of a main course with sides, or cold for a lunch or appetizer spread.

DESSERT

For dessert, serve the simple, silly and sweet “Fortune Strudel” from The Chinese-Kosher Cookbook by Bob Grossman. Grossman’s cookbook is like reading an Anzia Yezierska novel; the recipes are written in dialect, meant to mimic an immigrant bubbe. Grossman’s bubbe is the inspiration for the book. Grossman avoided his Grandmother Slipakoff’s invitations to Friday night supper, choosing Chinese food over her endless routine of chicken or roast beef. One week, Grandmother Slipakoff said: “All right, you’ll come over Friday night, I’ll cook Chow Mein.” From that day forward, she dedicated herself to tempting her grandchildren over for dinner with her takes on Chinese-American cooking.

Here’s Grossman’s “recipe” for Fortune Strudel:

Before you get from the shelf your flour, let us tell you something. Strudel making is not a picnic. So better you find a nice bakery and buy there your strudel. When you get home from the bakery, you’ll take some little pieces of paper and write on them fortunes. … When all the fortunes are written, you’ll put each one on a plate and on the top you’ll put a piece strudel. Let a little piece paper stick out from underneath so they’ll see it and not eat it together with the strudel.

One of the fortunes Grossman suggests offers great advice for the holiday season: “Don’t be surprised if you get a gift soon. If you don’t like it, you can always exchange it.” 

 

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