Two cultures separated at birth?

Jiu Ma cooks up a storm

A version of this post is also at The Jew and the Carrot. I am officially a Jewish foodie writer!

As yet another chunk of lamb careened toward a dinner guest, the scene at that Shanghainese table started to feel very familiar. At that point in my two-week trip to the city, I had seen the Chinese version of Jewish Geography, discovered that latke-like potato cakes are a staple of Shanghai’s street food, and received motherly offers of housecleaning and space heaters.

As H’s aunt’s chopsticks moved from serving plate to individual bowls, clunking down pieces of meat in front of people who she thought should eat them, I decided something that I’d been pretty sure of all along—that eating Chinese food on Christmas is not the only thing that bonds Jewish folks with our friends in the Far East.

Think about it: H’s best friend from middle school–the only other Chinese kid in his class–was not from any of the hundreds of other towns and cities in the vast country but from Shanghai. New and alone in their Northern Virginia school, it probably didn’t take the two more than five minutes to discover they were from the same place half a world away, no doubt discovering and discussing many people they both knew. It sounded an awful lot like the “game” of finding common acquaintances usually dubbed Jewish Geography.

Or take the New Year. During my trip to Shanghai, when the subject of plans for December 31 came up, there was significantly less enthusiasm than you’d find back in my party town of Washington, D.C.–or anywhere else in the States. Instead of counting down and drinking champaign, on New Year’s Eve we found ourselves hanging out playing Mahjong. Everything was open and operating the next day.

Wait until February, they told me. On the Chinese New Year, you can bet there’s plans to be made and partying to be done. And everything shuts down for a week! It reminded me an awful lot of the Jewish calendar, with celebrations showing absolutely no interest in matching the secular or Christian schedule.

But I noticed the food similarities the most. In addition to pushing large amounts of food on loved ones, the family had fast-paced conversation and debates at the table. The dishes themselves were charged with memory and tradition. Certain dishes were made for family members know for their love of that particular food since they were five years old. On the winter solstice, the biggest part of the Chinese celebration was setting out a big spread for the spirits. Food as connection and celebration… what could be more Jewish? Or, it turns out, more Chinese?

There is one bit of distance between our cultures, which is rapidly shrinking: a typical Chinese meal involves homegrown vegetables or ingredients from a fresh market a couple of blocks away. Fresh produce, eggs, fish, meat, and noodles are often bought right before a meal, prepared simply, and served minutes later.

These may have been common practices for American Jews years ago, but I think many of us abandoned them, especially us city dwellers. Now we’re starting to devote ourselves, in greater numbers, to eating local, fresh, minimally processed food.

For me, this takes thought and a deliberate effort. I live in an apartment building with no space to garden and no nearby markets on the scale of what I saw in China. So I’ve become a member of a CSA, started going to farmer’s markets, and I try to avoid take out places and convenience foods. I’m meeting more and more Jews who have made these practices part of their lives. So it might not be long before sustainable eating is just as much part of Jewish culture as your aunt urging another serving of kugel.

* * *

Here are a couple of Chinese recipes that you can whip up easily and quickly. I recommend serving these family style, placing them in the center of the table and letting everyone have at it with chopsticks.

Cuke SaladLiang Ban Huan Gua, a.k.a Cold Cucumber Salad
Serves 4-6 as a side dish

2 medium cucumbers, peeled, halved, seeds removed with a spoon, and cut into cubes
1 tsp. salt, or to taste
1 pinch sugar
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tsp. black sesame seeds, optional

Combine all ingredients and toss. Chill 5-10 minutes before serving.

Potato strings
Tu Dou Si, a.k.a. Crunchy Potato Strings
Serves 4-6 as a side dish

2 large baking potatoes, just scrubbed if organic, peeled if conventional
½ bunch scallions, or 1 medium green pepper
Canola oil

Slice the potatoes in a long julienne and chop the scallions or thinly slice the green pepper.

Heat the canola oil in a wok or large skillet. Stir-fry the potatoes and scallions or pepper, tossing or stirring constantly. When potatoes are still crunchy, remove from heat. Serve immediately.

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