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.)
There are two types of food heresies among Jews. The first is the violation of the kosher laws: mixing milk and meat and eating pork, shellfish, and any other animal considered “unclean.” The second is going to a deli and ordering corned beef on white bread with ketchup. The first type of heresy is the product of Biblical laws and several millennia of discussion and interpretation. The second is simply a matter of taste, but it’s no less powerful. Rye bread is dense and sturdy and slightly sour, a contrast to the slick fattiness of pastrami. As for ketchup... Well, take the word of bread maven Stanley Ginsberg, who said in an interview that ketchup is the most horrifying thing he’s ever seen on a slice of rye bread: “Ketchup is a great equalizer that drowns the flavors of the foods on which it’s inflicted.”
These Pastrami Shrimp Toasts manage to violate both taboos at once. They feature shrimp, a shellfish and therefore unkosher. And they’re made with white bread. There’s no ketchup, though, and it’s topped with a sprinkle of rye cracker crumbs, along with the sesame seeds that are part of traditional shrimp toast.
I’m sure there are some lovers of shrimp toast out there who would, in turn, be appalled by the inclusion of pastrami. But maybe less so, because shrimp toast itself is a fusion food. No one knows who invented it or when, but chef Dale Talde, who specializes in Asian fusion cuisine, told The Wall Street Journal he didn’t believe it could have happened before the British came to Hong Kong in the mid-19th century because they would have brought the bread. The dish was spread around the world by the British, independent of the American Chinese restaurants that created and popularized so many other dishes.
But you know what? Someone somewhere along the line had to be the first Jew to try pastrami on rye. Pastrami came from Romania and was traditionally made from the cheapest meat people could find. In America, that became beef. The rye bread that we know and love, Ginsberg says, originated in southern Poland and Ukraine. According to Henry Moscow in The Book of New York Firsts, the two first came together in 1888 in a Lower East Side butcher shop owned by a Lithuanian immigrant named Sussman Volk who had inherited the recipe from a Romanian friend who’d had enough of New York and decided to go back to the Old Country. This story, however, was passed on to Moscow by Volk’s great-granddaughter, and as we’ve seen before, family stories are not always the most reliable. But even if it wasn’t Volk, it was somebody on the Lower East Side at the end of the 19th century. The point is, everything was once new at some point.
So as long as you’ve got nothing against shrimp, when it comes to these Pastrami Shrimp Toasts—which are crunchy and salty and fatty and everything we love about food—why not follow the advice of Jewish bubbes everywhere: “Try it, you’ll like it”?
Makes 32 toasts
- 8 oz. shrimp, raw with shells removed
- 1/4 lb. sliced pastrami
- 2 large cloves garlic
- 1 large scallion
- 1/4 cup canned water chestnuts
- 1 egg
- 1 Tbsp. soy sauce
- 2 tsp. cornstarch
- 1/4 tsp. coriander
- 1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
- 8 slices white bread
- 1/2 cup rye cracker crumbs
- 1/2 cup sesame seeds
- Oil for frying (I use vegetable, but canola, peanut, or shortening will also work.)
Fill a Dutch oven with at least 3" of oil and clip on a frying thermometer. Place over high heat until the oil reaches approximately 370 degrees Fahrenheit.
In a food processor, pulse together the shrimp, pastrami, garlic, scallion, water chestnuts, egg, soy sauce, cornstarch, coriander, and black pepper until a rough, cohesive paste forms.
Cut the crusts off the slices of white bread and spread each piece with about 1/4 cup of the shrimp mixture. Use a sharp knife to cut each piece into four triangles. Mix the rye breadcrumbs and sesame seeds together in a bowl, dip the shrimp toasts in to coat, then shake off any excess seeds.
Gently place a few toasts shrimp side down in the hot oil; they will float. Cook for about two minutes, then flip the toasts over and cook for another minute until the bread turns golden brown. Move to a sheet pan lined thickly with paper towels to drain, then serve immediately.