Tradition: The Story of Chinese Food on Christmas

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If you met your BFF on Birthright and you call your grandma “Bubbe,” chances are you eat Chinese on Christmas. Ahead of this year’s observance, a historical primer:

Most people assume that the Chinese-on-Christmas tradition is a product of a period of American history when Chinese restaurants were the only eateries open on the holiday. While this is mostly true, it’s not the whole story. Some talking points:

1. The tradition likely originated in New York City’s Lower East Side, one of the country’s first Jewish neighborhoods which, as it happens, borders Chinatown.

2. New York’s dining scene a century ago was fairly sparse. That is to say, if you were eating out in today’s downtown you were either having Italian or Chinese. Given that Italian restaurants tended to be more observant of Christmas, Chinese was an easy choice for the city’s Jewish community come December 25th.

3. Jewish cooking and Chinese cooking improbably share several common elements, including liberal use of garlic and onion, soft-cooked veggies, an appreciation of offal and a sweet-to-sour palate; scallion pancakes and latkes anyone?

4. Chinese food often ends up as incidentally-Kosher as meat and dairy are never mixed in Chinese cooking. (To be fair, dairy isn’t used at all.)

5. In the early 1900s Chinese restaurants would market wonton soup to their Jewish customers as “chicken soup with kreplach.”

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This year, Kitchensurfing’s official Christmas takeout menu comes courtesy of Los Angeles Chef Or Amsalam. Chef Or is offering a spread of takeout classics like wonton soup, fried rice, ginger and garlic beef — delivery included for $35 per person. All orders must be in by Monday, 12/23. Check out Chef Or’s menu here.

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All photography by Geoff Souder.


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