A funny thing happened on the way to the Christmas dinner table at Diane’s relatives house. There was no dinner. Spending our last holiday season in the cold before we move to Malaysia in the spring, Diane and I heard the news through the family grapevine.
Although both her parents are relatively fit and healthy, they’ve apparently decided that 80 is the magic age where parents get to say “I’m too old to cook anymore”. Fortunately, there’s always been a solution and for a Chinese-Jewish couple, it’s almost sacrilegious NOT to engage in the traditional Christmas Feast at a Chinese restaurant. Invented in New York City, Christmas Day Chinese dinner represents the busiest day of the year for a Chinese restaurant, sans perhaps Chinese New Year. Welcoming both religious, non-religious and those Jews somewhere in-between, Chinese entrepreneurs figured out long ago that the Jewish community has a lot of money, celebrates their own holiday season on eight different days that never fall on December 25th and best of all, Jewish people love Chinese food.
Ironically, the historical ties to Christmas dinner in a Chinese restaurant bear no resemblance to anything in Diane’s non-Jewish Edmonton community. Unaware of the hoopla surrounding Jewish people’s appetites on Christmas Day, Chinese restaurants in Edmonton stay open on Christmas Day for one reason. To make lots of money. Unlike most North American Caucasian meals where each diner orders one entrée, Chinese meals are always served in multiple courses on large lazy-susan style tables where everyone shares.
Usually involving an entire large family, every table has the potential to draw enormous crowds, order copious amounts of alcohol and reap profits exceeding anything available to the silly white restaurateurs who close on Christmas. Perhaps I should clarify something. Marrying into a Chinese family when you come from a culture stereotyped by money teaches you a few things about Chinese culture that they’d rather keep to themselves.
At the risk of exposing an entire race and with apologies to every wealthy Jewish family (mine is not one of them), allow me to share a secret. Chinese people have as much money as Jewish folks, maybe even more. Differentiating them is their ability to keep this to themselves. Unlike competing Jewish mothers at a Florida retirement community comparing their doctor and lawyer sons, Chinese people keep their financial secrets just that: a secret. Possibly why the Jewish/Chinese couple is a perfect blend of values, the traditional Jewish Christmas dinner in a Chinese restaurant begins to make more sense.
Growing up Jewish in a “goyasha” (non-Jewish) neighborhood is lonely, confusing and often downright depressing, especially when you’re a non-religious family and don’t even celebrate Chanukkah, the Jewish version of Christmas. Spread over eight days, Jewish children reward themselves for being different, outdoing the Christian kids who only enjoy one day of presents. Never partaking in anything religious, my parents somehow felt it was OK to stick a cheesy electric menorah in the window of our Brooklyn apartment and simply wait for Christmas Day for the annual jaunt to Manhattan’s Chinatown where real Jews chowed down on New York style Chinese food.
Learning the difference between “traditional” Chinese food and “lo-fon” food (a Cantonese expression for “white ghost”, the reference given to all Caucasians) proved interesting, especially in a Canadian city devoid of most Jewish people. Accustomed to chow mein noodles served with duck sauce on every table like bread, a New York version of Chinese mustard and sweet glazed ribs served in cellophane take-out containers, who knew New York’s version of Chinese food was created for a white person’s palate (probably by a smart Chinese person).
Unaware what I’d been missing, Diane’s family introduced me to cultural family style dinners soon after becoming an American expat in Canada, in a real Chinese restaurant where the only white people were family members . Chuckling at my inability to grab a small piece of food with chopsticks from a plate four feet away served on a swiveling revolving table, her parents quizzed me about my knowledge of Chinese food, unaware that New York Jews practically invented the stuff.
Taking away many important lessons from those first few meals, I discovered what I’d been doing wrong all those years by eating lemon chicken, sweet and sour pork, and chop suey, all Americanized bastardizations of Chinese food slopped together with pasty gooey sauces dripping with corn starch and sugar. Wondering why they served soup six courses after the appetizer, I had no idea that fish stomach is real Chinese soup and adding red vinegar is the norm. Even stranger was the chicken, served whole with the skin and sliced into bite sized pieces along with some salt and ginger with sesame oil. Unsure why the shrimp came with little eyeballs and slopped with a mayonnaise like glaze, I wondered what remote part of China this food came from.
Unwilling to be outdone by profiteering Chinese restaurant owners, The Jewish community in San Francisco did what any smart Jewish group would; they merged with the Chinese and created “Kung Pao Kosher Comedy”. Diane and I discovered this bizarre mix of comedy and Chinese food one year while looking for something to do in the city during the holidays that didn’t cost a fortune (not much). An annual Christmas Day event since 1993, the event was founded by San Francisco comedian Lisa Geduldig who inadvertently performed in a Chinese restaurant once, thinking it was comedy club. Starting out as a service for Jews with nothing to do on Christmas, it blossomed into one the Bay Area’s most popular holiday events, selling out every year.
Understanding the Jewish community in Penang will likely be limited to myself and few other lost souls, I’m thankful we’re moving to a nation where December 25th is just another day to a large segment of the highly Muslim population but I sure wish I could find some matzoh ball soup to go with my Char Kway Teow. Meanwhile it’s time for Christmas dinner with fried rice, abilone soup, whole sea bass, salted chicken, tripe appaetizers, gai-lon and Peking duck.
Mozel Tov and Merry Christmas from Golden Rice Bowl Restaurant in beautiful Edmonton, Alberta.
Don’t miss our Boxing Day Blowout Post on December 26th !!