Why is it a sacred Canadian Jewish tradition to eat Chinese food on Christmas?

The simple answer is that Chinese owners of Chinese restaurants are not typically Christian or Catholic.

For the longest time, their restaurants were the only ones open on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, making them the perfect places for Jewish people to eat over the holidays.

Of course, today we Jews have so many more options on Christmas: Middle Eastern restos; Lebanese, Persian, Afghani, South Asian, Korean, Vietnamese and Thai cuisine, just to name a few.

But an informal survey of fellow members of the tribe, throughout this great land of ours, indicates that Chinese food was still the go-to food this past Christmas.

This year I journeyed to Richmond Hill, about 45 minutes from Toronto, which is home to thriving suburban Jewish and Asian communities. I went to one of favorite Chinese restaurants, Choice of the Orient, that has owned and operated by the Wong family for over 28 years.

It’s not just a Christmas tradition, however. My mother (not the greatest cook at the best of times) used to take us out for traditional Chinese from Ruby Foos in Montreal every Sunday. I learned how to expertly eat with chopsticks around the same time I learned cursive writing.

One reason is that Chinese cooking does not contain any dairy, so there is no need to worry about mixing dairy with meat, which is against Jewish dietary law. So a cheeseburger is a big no-no.  Same goes for pepperoni pizzas.

That’s why there are Jewish restaurants or shops devoted almost solely to selling dairy products. United Bakeries in the Bathurst Lawrence Plaza comes to mind.  Growing up in Montreal in a Conservative/Orthodox lite household, we had separate plates and cutlery for milk and meat. On Passover, we even had third set of glass plates and special cutlery, exclusively for the Passover holiday.

(As a Reform Jew, living on my own, I’m not too fussed about of separation of milk and meat. I am afraid that Kosher ship has sailed.)

Note that like traditional Jewish cooking, Chinese food is typically prepared in the Cantonese culinary style known for overcooking vegetables, using a ton of garlic and onions, and balancing sweet flavors with sour ones.

Another strict Jewish dietary law prohibits eating any pork products or shellfish, like lobster. This fare is known in Yiddish as “trayf.”

In 1992, Gaye Tuchman and Harry Levine actually wrote an academic paper called “Safe Treyf,” which argued that Chinese food featured the sort of unkosher dishes you could take home to your mother (or at least eat in front of her.) That’s because the pork and shellfish is always either chopped and minced and served in the middle of innocuous vegetables all covered in a common sauce, or it is wrapped up in wontons and egg rolls—where you can’t see it.

For years growing up in Montreal, our family used to eat tons of Ruby Foos dry little spare ribs slathered in the very sweet tangy sauce. And it never dawned on me that I was eating forbidden pork.

And until my mother’s dying day, her favorite takeout was lobster Cantonese.

Historically, we Jews have been a persecuted folk. To date, to my limited knowledge, we Jews have not suffered from any Chinese pogroms. Hence we Jews do not naturally fear the Chinese. American writer Philip Roth had one of his most famous characters, Alexander Portnoy, say this in Portnoy’s Complaint:

“Yes, the only people in the world whom it seems to me the Jews are not afraid of are the Chinese. Because one, the way they speak English makes my father sound like Lord Chesterfield and two, to them we are not Jews but white and maybe even Anglo Saxon. No wonder they can’t intimidate us. To them we’re just some big-nosed variety of WASP.”

So for many Canadian Jews ( and I am sure, American Jews), eating Chinese food on Christmas has become an almost sacred Jewish ritual, if not quite on the same order of lighting the Chanukah candles. In many ways, it is a way for Canadian Jews to asserting their Jewishness on the anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ.

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