Two Cultures Separated at Birth?

twocultures.JPGThanks to Rhea Kennedy of the You are Delicious blog, for this guest post and two delicious recipes.

As yet another plate of lamb careened toward the table, the scene at my boyfriend’s aunt and uncle’s Shanghainese house started to feel very familiar.  I’d already discovered that latke-like potato cakes are a staple street food in Shanghai.  Now, as my boyfriend’s aunt’s chopsticks moved from serving plate to individual bowls, clunking down pieces of meat in front of the people she’d decided should eat them, I realized that eating Chinese food on Christmas is not the only thing that bonds Jewish folks with our friends in the Far East.

Think about it: my boyfriend’s best friend from middle school – the only other Chinese kid in his class – was not from any of the hundreds of other towns and cities in the China, but from Shanghai.  New and alone in their Northern Virginia school, it probably didn’t take them more than five minutes to discover they were from the same place half a world away, no doubt discovering and discussing many people they both knew. It sounded an awful lot like Jewish Geography.

Or take the New Year. During my trip to Shanghai, when the subject of plans for December 31 came up, there was significantly less enthusiasm than you’d find back in my party town of Washington, D.C.- or anywhere else in the States. Instead of counting down and drinking champagne on New Year’s Eve, we found ourselves hanging out playing Mahjong. Everything was open and operating the next day.

“Wait until February,” my boyfriend’s family told me. “On the Chinese New Year, you can bet there’s partying to be done.  Everything shuts down for a week!”  This week-long celebration reminded me an awful lot of the Jewish calendar, where the best holidays show absolutely no interest in matching the secular or Christian schedule.

But I noticed the food similarities the most. In addition to pushing large amounts of food on to loved ones, my boyfriend’s family had fast-paced conversation and debates at the table. The dishes themselves were charged with memory and tradition. Certain dishes were made for family members known for their love of that particular food since they were five years old. On the winter solstice, the biggest part of the Chinese celebration was setting out a big spread for the spirits.  Maybe the act itself was different than anything in Jewish tradition – but food as connection and celebration… what could be more Jewish?

One primary difference I noticed between our cultures is that a typical Chinese meal involves homegrown vegetables or ingredients from a fresh market a couple of blocks away. Fresh produce, eggs, fish, meat, and noodles are often bought right before a meal, prepared simply, and served minutes later.  These may have been common practices for American Jews years ago, but I think many of us abandoned them, especially us city dwellers.  However, the distance is shrinking, now that American Jews are once again devoting ourselves in greater numbers to eating local, fresh, minimally processed food.  Increasingly, I’ve met Jews who have made these sustainable practices part of their lives. So it might not be long before sustainable eating is just as much part of Jewish culture as your aunt urging another helping of kugel.

* * *

Here are a couple of Chinese recipes that you can whip up easily and quickly. I recommend serving these family style, placing them in the center of the table and letting everyone have at it with chopsticks.

凉拌黄瓜, a.k.a. Liang Ban Huan Gua, a.k.a Cold Cucumber Salad
Serves 4-6 as a side dish

2 medium cucumbers, peeled, halved, seeds removed with a spoon, and cut into cubes
1 tsp. salt, or to taste
1 pinch sugar
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tsp. black sesame seeds, optional

Combine all ingredients and toss. Chill 5-10 minutes before serving.

土豆丝,a.k.a Tu Dou Si, a.k.a. Crunchy Potato Strings
Serves 4-6 as a side dish

2 large baking potatoes, just scrubbed if organic, peeled if conventional
½ bunch scallions, or 1 medium green pepper
Canola oil

Slice the potatoes in a long julienne and chop the scallions or thinly slice the green pepper.

Heat the canola oil in a wok or large skillet. Stir-fry the potatoes and scallions or pepper, tossing or stirring constantly. When potatoes are still crunchy, remove from heat. Serve immediately.

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5 Responses to “Two Cultures Separated at Birth?”

  1. Hillary Says:

    I have noticed some of these similarities before too but didn’t realize that until reading your piece – very interesting! Ill be checking out your blog. Great piece Rhea.

  2. Steamy Kitchen Says:

    Love this story. I also make a little salad with broccoli stems – cut into super thin “coins” and dressed in same dressing and eaten raw. broccoli always have too much stem and this is a great way to use them up

  3. Steamy Kitchen Says:

    oh an add a splash of rice wine vinegar to that salad. refreshing!

  4. Rhea Says:

    Thanks for your comments! I didn’t notice until recently that others are tuned into the similarities of our cultures. For a cute piece about what we have in common and mutual admiration, check out http://marketplace.publicradio.....nese_jews/.

    Steamy Kitchen – that’s a great recipe… and more seasonal for the winter, too. I’ll have to try it with rice wine vinegar. Sometimes I add umeboshi plum vinegar, but that can be really salty and, well, vinegary. So rice wine vinegar is a great idea :)

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