Christmas Day is a holiday on which many Jewish Americans enjoy a tradition of going to the movies and eating Chinese food. But this year, Christmas falls right in the middle of the eight days of Hanukkah, so we’re presenting recipes that meld traditional Jewish dishes with American Chinese classics. We hope you enjoy this Cantonese Chrismukkah menu. It’s not strictly kosher, but it does celebrate a particular Jewish-American family tradition. (You’ll have to choose your own movie.)
The affinity between Jews and Chinese food goes back to the turn of the 20th century when Jewish immigrants found themselves crammed into lower Manhattan beside Chinese and Italian immigrants. And very soon after, they became frequent diners at Chinese restaurants. As the joke goes: “According to the Jewish calendar, the year is 5780. According to the Chinese calendar, the year is 4718. That means for 1,062 years, the Jews went without Chinese food.”
In hindsight, as ethnographers Gaye Tuchman and Harry G. Levine wrote in their study “New York Jews and Chinese Food: The Social Construction of an Ethnic Pattern,” this makes perfect sense. The Chinese had to avoid the appearance of open competition with their white neighbors, which they did by opening restaurants. But to stay open, they had to appeal to whites, so they Americanized their food by making it sweeter and leaving out certain animal parts.
The Italians mostly avoided the Chinese restaurants; they had a cuisine of their own and restaurants that they were justifiably proud of. Eastern European Jews, on the other hand, had no fancy restaurant version of the food they ate at home. They avoided Italian restaurants because Jews and gentiles tended to distrust each other, and Italian restaurants were so Catholic. But there was nothing Christian about Chinese food. Chinese restaurants were even open on Christmas. A Chinese restaurant was a perfect special occasion meal—if you were a Jew. It was exotic in that it was food you could definitely not get back in the Old Country. But the sweet-and-sour flavor profile was familiar, as was the liberal use of garlic, and, of course, dumplings floating in chicken soup. (Wontons, kreplach, same difference.)
There was the slight complication that Chinese food was probably not kosher. However—Chinese chefs didn’t cook with dairy, so there was no chance that they would mix it with meat, one of the great taboos of Jewish eating. True, those same Chinese chefs cooked with very unkosher pork and shellfish, but they very considerately chopped it into tiny pieces so Jews could pretend they didn’t know what they were eating. It was “safe treyf.”
Only the most delusional person could pretend that they don’t know that spare ribs come from unkosher pigs, but American Jews have, as a culture, moved on from “safe treyf.” Fewer than a quarter of us still keep kosher, at least according to the 2013 Pew Research Center survey of U.S. Jews. We know what’s in our Chinese food. And unless we’re eating it in a kosher Chinese restaurant, we’re okay with treyf. It’s part of our heritage now.
These spare ribs, however, do incorporate the Hanukkah tradition of frying. But before that, they’re braised in a sweet and sour sauce until the meat falls from bone. The frying adds a crispy crust. They are, in a word, spectacular.
- 1 rack pork spare ribs
- 2/3 cup tomato puree
- 1/3 cup ketchup
- 4 oz. carrot puree (one small jar baby food)
- 2/3 cup hoisin sauce
- 1/2 cup soy sauce
- 1/4 cup dark brown sugar
- 3 Tbsp. apple cider or rice wine vinegar
- 1 Tbsp. + 2 tsp. five spice powder
- 1 Tbsp. garlic powder
- 2 tsp. onion powder
- 1 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
- 1 1/4 cup cornstarch
- 2 Tbsp. honey
- 1 gallon oil, for frying
Preheat the oven to 300 degrees Fahrenheit.
Tear two long sheets of heavy duty aluminum foil and crimp together lengthwise to make one big sheet large enough to hold the entire rack of ribs. Put on top of a sturdy sheet pan.
In a bowl, whisk together the tomato puree, ketchup, carrot puree, hoisin sauce, soy sauce, brown sugar, and vinegar.
Mix together the five spice powder, garlic powder, onion powder, and kosher salt, and rub well across the meaty side of the ribs. Add the tomato mixture to the foil, then add the ribs meat side down. Crimp the foil to seal and braise in the oven for 2 hours. Allow the ribs to cool to room temperature, then refrigerate overnight.
Fill a Dutch oven with a gallon of oil, clip a frying thermometer to the side of the pot, and cook over high heat until the oil reaches approximately 375 degrees.
Unwrap the ribs. Stand them on their end. Use a paper towel to remove the now-solidified fat, and wipe off any excess braising liquid back onto the foil. Move the ribs to a cutting board and, propping them up on their sides, use a sharp knife to slice between the bones into individual ribs. Put into a large bowl with the cornstarch and toss well until coated.
Pour the reserved braising liquid (about 2 cups) into a small saucepan and cook over medium-high heat, reducing until it’s thick and syrupy, about 5 minutes. Whisk in the honey and set aside with a basting brush at the ready.
Shake the excess cornstarch off the ribs and fry them, no more than four at a time, for 3 minutes until crisp and brown. Move to a plate thickly lined with paper towels to drain, then gently brush with sauce on the meaty side before serving.