It’s hard to kvetch about being a Japanese Jew when you’re being spoiled by ladles of chicken schmaltz spoon-fed to you by your father, while your mother asks if you would like some more teriyaki sauce on your beef yakitori.
And did I mention my parents arguing about whether both challah and rice should be served at every meal?
Let’s just say they both usually got their way, which was a good thing. What’s not to love about a dinner table with both borscht soup and miso soup, alongside beef brisket, sashimi and some latkes just for good measure?
While that may sound like an overly-exotic combination for some, the sharing of cultural recipes passed down from both cultural sides is what brought us closer together as a family.
As a kid, I assumed everyone had parents who debated whether lox or sautéed salmon was the healthier choice well before “Omega-3 Fatty acids” was ever a religion, while I enjoyed both macaroons and mochi balls for dessert.
And the generation of food-love didn’t end with my parents. My Jewish grandfather “Booby” made a hearty feast of sweet and sour cabbage stew. And my Japanese grandma “Hatsuyo” was known for her Sukiyaki, also known as ”steamboat cooking,” made with beef, vegetables, soy sauce, sugar and sake.
Not so shabby.
You can bet my house was popular in my all-Jewish neighborhood. And I thought kids liked me for me. Who was I kidding? They just wanted to get closer to my mom’s home-cooking.
Word got around alright, and I couldn’t blame friends for wanting charoset and mandelbrodt served alongside chicken gyoza and udon noodles. And to make things brighter, my father was the resident stand-up comic with his borsht-belt humor and one-liners we awaited each night.
Dinnertime was “the time” we felt most connected; a moment when we could forget about the angst we often felt as a culturally blended family, in the days when interfaith families were far from being accepted.
Comedian Milton Berle once observed, “Any time a person goes into a delicatessen and orders a pastrami on white bread, somewhere a Jew dies.”
Uncle Milty, perhaps that once “seemed” to be the case, but today there are Jews who enjoy a much more diverse palette. For example, at a Japanese restaurant last week, there were more Jewish patrons who knew varieties of California rolls than I did.
Soy vey, this is a great thing.
Today, I am blessed with daughters of my own who I can lavish with tasty dishes that have been passed down from both sides of my food-obsessed family.
And yes, I will admit that I have officially become both my mother and my father, which used to be my greatest fear.
I recently guilted my older daughter when she wouldn’t eat my larger than usual matzah balls. Under my breath I muttered, “Is it too much to ask that you should want to eat your own mother’s food I spent all day cooking?”
And I channeled my father today when I asked my younger shayna maidel to tell jokes for people at the market, bribing her with some tasty knishes..
“Oh, don’t be such a nudge,” she said to me as she gave me a quick hug and prepared to deliver a joke that could rival my father’s.
This is bashert, I thought. Each generation carrying on traditions that can only be described as poignant and even sweeter than my famous babkas.
Below you will find two favorite family recipes. May you serve and enjoy eating them with your family and friends.
And if you don’t, no worries. I’ll just sit here in my kimono in the dark, eating a knish or two.
3 chicken thighs, or more if you’re real hungry, and cut into 1/2 inch pieces
3 packages of Udon noodles, preferable thawed
5 green onions, chopped fine on cut diagonally
2 Tbsp of soy sauce
1 teaspoon Table salt
4 cups Dashi, Japanese cooking stock
2 Tbsp Sake, if you’re on the wagon, you can omit!
A sprinkle or two of shichimi to taste, hot pepper condiment
2 Tbsp Mirin, a white rice wine
Fishcake, as many thin slices as your appetite suggests
Cooking preparations & instructions:
Lovingly gather a large pot, like you would for a hearty chicken noodle soup. Add Dashi to pot and bring to a hearty boil and add sake, salt, Mirin, soy sauce, and some words like “This is going to be the best Udon ever, because I made it.”
Bring to a simmer and slowly add chicken so as not to burn your hand, let simmer for 3 to four minutes.
Next, add all of the green onions for a zesty flavor, and the udon noodles as well.
For beauty and a delicious subtle flavor, add the pink and white fishcake to garnish each individual serving,
Now, happily call about four people in the house for a great dinner that will have them asking for more!
Grandfather Booby’s Sweet and Sour Cabbage Stew
2 pounds beef brisket
2 onions, chopped fine
1-quart broth (beef)
2 cups tomatoes
1-cup tomato sauce
1½ – 2 pounds cabbage, shredded fine
1 teaspoon salt
1-teaspoon ground pepper
2 tablespoons sugar
Extra ingredients such as potatoes, peas, and other vegetables can be added as well for variety.
Combine water, broth, and brisket in a large pot and bring to a boil, watching over carefully.
Simmer and add other ingredients, stir as needed and simmer with cover for two and a half to three hours until meat is tender and soft.
Happily sample the stew and add additional seasoning to taste. The stew is best when accompanied by bread, potatoes, rice, and sides of horseradish and salads.
Grandmother Hatsuyo’s Easy & Delicious Sukiyaki
1 cup water
2 pounds tender stew meat
1 teaspoon salt
¼-cup soy sauce
½-pound baby carrots
½-cup Japanese sake
3 potatoes, peeled and chopped
Extra ingredients such as peas, cabbage, and fish are delicious too!
Simply put all ingredients into crock-pot on high for 4-6 hours or on low for 10-12. Can also be cooked on low heat in a large pot or skillet on stove.
Great for freezing and reheating for all hungry family members and guests for both lunch and dinner.
Shabbat Dinner Menu for 15: Egg drop soup with crunchy noodles, Stir Fried Vegetables, Dan Dan Noodles, Roasted Chicken with Duck Sauce, Garlic Broccoli, Five-Spice Glazed Salmon, Mandarin Oranges and Almond Cookies.
This is not merely a Chinese-themed Shabbat for us. This is our Chinese-themed life.
It’s a bit hectic here now. Tonight can best be described as essentially erev Chinese New Year. It’s a half-day for work and school. Even the supermarkets will close early. And because it’s the Lunar New Year, it of course is also Rosh Chodesh (and it’s my turn to host). The rhythms of the two traditions seem to naturally fit together.
For Rosh Hashanah we make amends. For the Gregorian calendar New Year, we sometimes feel compelled to make resolutions. By Chinese New Year, we merely make plans and merriment.
In Hong Kong, as in other parts of China, Chinese New Year (referred to as the Lunar New Year) is the focal point of the season rather than Christmas and that is certainly a welcome change for us. This is a festival that we as Jews can fully participate in.
Children go to school in traditional Chinese dress before the festival, a custom that the Jewish Day School here fully embraces too and there is nothing cuter than a room full of toddlers in brightly colored silk Chinese costumes with kippot on too.
My children make colorful cards and decorations complete with Chinese calligraphy in class. We add the new ones to the growing pile of decorations which we take out annually to decorate our home. I even managed to buy a banner this year that carries wishes for honey and sweetness, one that I will now use on Rosh Hashanah as well.
We join the millions of locals who rush to the holiday fairs and outdoor markets, where delicate orchids, curly bamboo and peach blossoms are all sold to bring fortune and luck in the New Year. We too again buy a new orchid, complete with hanging miniature red lanterns, for our home. (With my limited horticulture skills, though, luck for our orchid will be just surviving the taxi ride home.)
Businesses all close and families gather together. A schedule-free four day weekend is much welcome in our hectic city lives. For the children it’s a full week off though. I make plans to bake traditional egg tarts (kosher, of course) one afternoon with a friend as an activity for our younger children. We will all run from one lion dance performance to another.
The Chinese festivals have many similarities to our own Jewish traditions. They too follow the moon and are deeply rooted in ancient tradition. Chinese New Year traditions such as sweeping and thereby casting away the bad, wearing new outfits in purposefully chosen symbolic colors, giving gifts of money in denominations that are lucky and abstaining from haircuts are all things we can certainly relate to.
While as Jews New Years is filled with apples and honey and pomegranates, for Chinese and now for us too it is also mandarins, candied dried fruit and lotus and melon seeds. Families gather and enjoy foods rich with symbolism and platters piled with tradition. This is something that just comes naturally.
There’s a not-so-funny joke that goes, “A man walks into a Chinese restaurant and says to the waiter, ‘Excuse me sir, but are there any Chinese Jews?’ To which the waiter replies, ‘No, sir, we just have orange juice, apple juice, grapefruit juice…’”
It’s slightly bearable if the delivery includes an awful impression of a Chinese accent. But there are apparently many people who do appreciate this joke, and they make sure that it makes its way through the grapevine to me, a Chinese Jew.
I enjoy being a Chinese Jew.
I eat plenty of matzo balls and potstickers, I celebrate three New Years, and in high school I crushed my math classes.
I’ve often had to convince people that I’m Jewish, which is amusing and usually results in a new friend feeling like they can connect with me better due to a shared religion. Other than that, I can’t say I really thought about what it meant to Chinese and Jewish while I was growing up.
The only time my Chinese Jewishness got me into trouble was during my dating days in New York. Jewish guys with “yellow fever” would take me on casual dates to casual places, but the second they discovered I was Jewish, things got weird. Suddenly I wasn’t a casual date, suddenly I was the first Jewish girl that didn’t remind them of their mother and do I want to get married.
Speaking of boys.
I recently followed a Norwegian one out to rural North Dakota, population six Jews and about 10,000 Scandinavian descendants. Things are quiet here, people are Midwestern nice, and the small town life is pretty darn wonderful.
For the first time in my life, I feel a bit like an oddball, in a sea of light-haired Lutherans, but people embrace me when I introduce them to challah. North Dakotans love challah! And I love their food too, like Lefse and dessert bars of all sorts.
All of my Challah here is homemade. As are my latkes, kugel, matzo balls… you get the picture. There’s not a deli in sight. Not even a bagel. I do miss bopping down to Zabar’s for babka and bagels, but on the other hand, with the necessity to make everything from scratch comes the opportunity to put my own spin on things and mash up my Chinese/Jewish/Midwesternness.
Brisket in my potstickers, ginger sugar beet latkes, egg rolls with home cured pastrami from a cow that I’ll one day raise…
I’m getting carried away.
Here is an Asian twist on my all time favorite challah. It’s inspired by the scallion pancake.
Makes one large loaf
Basic Challah Dough
Based on Food 52′s Recipe
1 tablespoon instant yeast
3/4 cups warm water
2 tablespoons + 1 teaspoon sugar
3 cups flour, plus more for dusting
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons honey
1/3 cups vegetable or canola oil
Filling and Topping
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
2-3 stalks scallions or green onions, minced
salt, pepper, and red chili flakes to taste
Egg wash: 1 egg beaten with 1 tablespoon of water
A few pinches of toasted sesame seeds and black sesame seeds
In a small bowl, proof yeast in 1/2 cup warm water mixed with 1 teaspoon of sugar.
While yeast is proofing, mix flour, salt, and remaining 2 tablespoons of sugar in a large bowl.
In a medium bowl, mix remaining 1/4 cup of water, honey, oil, and eggs.
Once yeast has finished proofing, add it to the flour, followed by the wet ingredients. Mix with a large wooden spoon until dough becomes too thick to stir. Empty dough onto well-floured surface and knead by hand. Knead dough until smooth and no longer sticky, adding flour as needed.
Transfer to an oiled bowl and cover with a damp towel. Let rise for about two hours, or until doubled in size.
Preheat oven to 375.
Divide dough into three equal parts and then roll each part into a 1-foot log. Gently flatten each log so that it is about 3 inches wide.
Brush each with toasted sesame oil and then sprinkle with salt, pepper, chili flakes, and scallions. Roll them up length wise like a jellyroll, and then braid.
Place the loaf on a parchment lined baking sheet and then brush with egg wash and sprinkle with sesame seeds and black pepper.
Bake for 20-25 minutes until the top is golden brown and the challah is cooked through.