If Chinese food has become part of your tradition at this time of year, you’re one of millions of Jews who gleefully tear open packets of chopsticks and dig in to cartons of lo mein while the rest of the country slices their Christmas ham. But where and when did this tradition really start?
Contrary to popular belief, there’s an actual history to Jews eating Chinese food—and it’s not just because Chinese restaurants are some of the only establishments open when Santa rides his sleigh.
According to an article in The Atlantic, a big reason that Jews came to love Chinese food over the years is that Jewish and Chinese immigrants made up the majority of non-Christians in New York at the turn of the century. Though the groups had different cultures and religions, they were naturally united by their “outsider” status. Chinese restaurants didn’t close on Sundays for church, and with the Sabbath already over, Jews were free to sample the origins of the delectable smells coming from their kitchens.
Best of all, while many Chinese dishes included pork, dairy was not a worry for Jews keeping kosher—besides crab and cream cheese wontons, can you think of a single dish at your favorite Chinese restaurant that includes cheese? Or a heavy cream sauce? Therefore, as long as Jews avoided pork dumplings and the like, they could still, in a way, eat “kosherly” at a Chinese restaurant. In fact, some dishes probably even seemed familiar—a scallion pancake is to a latke as a dumpling is to a knish, no?
And yes, the majority of Chinese kitchens across the U.S. are open on Christmas when many others are closed. So, rather than sit at home and twiddle their thumbs while the rest of the neighborhood is out having eggnog and opening presents, Jews often get together with family and friends, crack open fortune cookies and enjoy their own version of the holiday. It’s a century-old tradition that has stuck, and why not? Egg rolls are pretty delicious.
Tired of the same old Chinese takeout? Check out Open Table’s list of other L.A. restaurants serving meals on Christmas.