Jewish love affair with Chinese food

BY DOROTHY FIRESTONE

SPECIAL TO THE LIGHT

The 27th annual St. Louis Jewish Book Festival begins on Sunday, Nov. 6, with a roster of Jewish literary stars, including two cookbook authors, Don Siegel and Matthew Goodman, who will discuss their books and offer samples of their recipes on Thursday, Nov. 10, at 1 p.m. at the JCC Wohl Building. Siegel, author of From Lokshen to Lo Mein: The Jewish Love Affair with Chinese Food (Gefen) will reveal the connections between Jews and Chinese food and how a geochemist came to be a Chinese Jewish caterer. Goodman, author of Jewish Food. The World at Table (HarperCollins) and food editor at The Forward, will talk about Jewish food as a product of history and geography.

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Siegel is a geochemist first, and second, a Chinese cook whose food has been praised by Chinese friends. I asked him what the connection was. “My specialty is water,” he said. “I am a hydro geologist who studies quality of water. When I do my samples of water, I have to prepare certain chemical solutions. Therefore, cooking is an extension of what I do in the lab.”

But Chinese? While at grad school, Siegel said he bought a large wok and decided to learn Chinese cooking with the scientific approach of trial and error. “I began cooking on my own when I left home,” he said. “I learned by experimenting.”

When he and his wife Betty, who is also a cook, moved to Syracuse, the family dinners at their synagogue always featured barbecued chicken. After the third barbecue dinner, Siegel suggested Chinese to the rabbi. “The rabbi said, ‘Why don’t you do it?'” Siegel said, thus launching his second career. He teaches at Syracuse University, and he prepares Chinese banquets for fund-raisers. “People ask for recipes and that’s how the book came to be.”

Goodman graduated from Vermont College with an MFA in creative writing and a love of cooking, which he taught himself. Since 1998, he has been writing the Food Maven, a biweekly column in The Forward with topics of historical interest with recipes to illustrate them.

“As each community has a history, so too does each food — and knowing something about that history will…make the food more interesting, and perhaps even more delicious,” he writes in Jewish Food.

Jewish Food, therefore, is both cookbook and history of Jewish communities from Salonika to Mexico. Most timely is the story of Iraq whose Jewish community dated back to 586 BCE, after King Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem and deported the Jews to Babylon, now Iraq. A large and stable Jewish community existed in Iraq until 1950 when a harsh government forced most of the Jews to leave the country.

For tickets to the St. Louis Jewish Book Festival, call 314-442-3299.

Egg Drop Soup

Adapted from From Lokshen to Lo Mein

Siegel writes that egg drop soup with wontons is a favorite, simple soup found in every Chinese restaurant. “I like good egg drop soup. It is the Chinese equivalent of Jewish chicken soup.” He says a little cilantro gives soup a unique fresh flavor, and using only egg whites will create beautiful ribbons in the soup. Serves four to six.

4 cups chicken stock

2 teaspoons sherry or rice wine

2 eggs lightly beaten or two egg whites, lightly beaten

1 tablespoon cornstarch mixed with two tablespoons cold water

1/2 cup fresh or frozen peas, optional

1 or 2 minced scallions

1 teaspoon minced cilantro, optional

Bring chicken stock to a simmer. Add sherry. Slowly pour in eggs in a stream, stirring soup in a circular fashion for a minute or so.

Stir in cornstarch mixed with water and continue to stir until soup has thickened.

Just before serving, add peas if desired. Garnish with scallions and optional cilantro.

Note: My friends who admire Chinese cooking said it tastes exactly like Chinese Egg Drop Soup.

Shorba Bi Djaj

Iraqi Creamy Chicken Soup with Rice

Adapted from Jewish Food. The World at Table

Goodman writes that in Iraq, this thick creamy soup, almost like porridge, was a favorite on cold winter mornings. The recipe came from Monique Daoud, one of the last Jews to leave Iraq in the early seventies. The recipe serves eight.

1/2 cup long-grain rice like basmati

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 onion, finely chopped

1 1/2 pounds chicken wings, rinsed

1/2 teaspoon turmeric

1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom

2 teaspoons salt

Freshly ground black pepper

10 cups water

1/2 cup red lentils, well washed (The red fades to cream in the soup.)

In soup pot, heat oil over medium heat. Add onion and cook about 8 minutes, stirring often, until onions are soft and translucent. Add wings, turmeric, cardamom, salt, pepper and water. Cover and bring to a boil over medium-high heat.

Lower heat and stir in lentils. Cover and simmer gently for one to two hours until soup is creamy.

Remove wings and when they are cool enough to handle, discard skin and bones, shred meat and return it to pot. Serve hot.

Note: After taking out the wings, I pureed the soup in a food processor and then added the meat from the wings. It is indeed a warm creamy soup, good for cold days. I have not tried it for breakfast.