According to the Chinese calendar, this year is 4708. According to the Jewish calendar, the year is 5772. This means the Jews went without Chinese food for over 1,000 years. Badum tish (FYI: that’s two rim shots and a splash cymbal for the old joke, not Yiddish.)
In Arthur Schwartz’s Jewish Home Cooking: Yiddish Recipes Revisited, Schwartz posits a number of reasons that Jews have an affinity for Chinese food. They include: the Chinese are not Christians (like the Italians) so the chance of encountering a crucifix or a Virgin Mary is slight; they don’t eat dairy so there’s no likelihood of encountering meat and dairy in the same meal, and Chinese food is cheap and tasty.
Further, since Jews considered the Chinese to be lower on the social scale than they were, they felt less competitive with them than they did with other immigrants. Chinese restaurants also didn’t make Jews feel as self-conscious about their immigrant status as the Chinese looked more like immigrants than they did. As Philip Roth pointed out in Portnoy’s Complaint, “to a Chinese waiter, a Jew was just another white guy.”
Lastly, Schwartz claims that immigrant Jews felt that eating forbidden foods like pork, shrimp, lobster, and clams, validated their Americanness. As a bonus, the Chinese cut their food into small pieces before it is cooked, disguising the non-kosher foods and allowing even observant Jews to declare that “what I can’t see won’t hurt me.”
Schwartz gives the following “fusion” recipe for roasted meat (pork or veal) on garlic bread with duck sauce (or balsamic vinegar). It’s said to have been created in the 1950s at Herbies, a Jewish deli-restaurant in the Catskills where performers gathered after their shows.
Chinese Roast Meat on Garlic Bread with Duck Sauce
4 tablespoons softened butter or extra virgin olive oil
8 cloves garlic, finely minced
4 (6- to 7-inch) French-style loaves, not too crusty nor too firm
1 pound Chinese-style red-roasted pork, or plain roast veal
Duck sauce or balsamic vinegar, for drizzling
Chinese mustard (optional)
To prepare the bread, in a small bowl, make garlic butter by working the butter and minced garlic together with a fork until well combined. For an oil dressing, combine the olive oil and garlic. Let the spread stand at room temperature for 30 minutes or up to a few hours.
Preheat the oven to 350˚F. Heat the bread directly on the middle rack of the oven for about 3 minutes, until hot. Leave the oven on. Remove the loaves from the oven; for each loaf, hold it with a potholder and halve it the long way with a serrated knife.
Spread the cut sides of each loaf with garlic butter or drizzle with the garlic oil. Place the loaf halves, spread-side up, on the middle oven rack and toast until the edges are browned.
To assemble the sandwiches, arrange a layer of sliced roast meat on the bottom half of each loaf. Drizzle the meat with about 2 tablespoons of duck sauce, and then very lightly with Chinese mustard.
Serve open with the top half of the bread, spread-side up, alongside the meat-filled bottom.
Another joke from Schwartz’s book: Two Chinese men are walking out of Katz’s Deli. One says to the other, “The problem with Jewish food is that two weeks later you’re hungry again.”