Jews and Chinese food
Chinese style hot and sour soup

By Tina Wasserman

There have always been two major factors in the spread of the Jewish Diaspora: commerce and persecution. The arrival of Jewish émigrés into Far East Asia and their subsequent egress from that region were no exception.

One hundred years ago a letter was found in Western China that was written by a sheep merchant in 718 petitioning for the right to sell his animals. It was written in Persian-Hebrew. The presence of traders coming from the Near East — Persia, Mesopotamia — was found all along the Silk Road. Around the year 960, a group of Persian Jews arrived in the city of Kaifeng, which was the capital of the Sung Dynasty and the center of trade on the Silk Route at that time. The Kaifeng museum has a stone tablet dated in 1489 that commemorates an old synagogue that the Jews were given permission to build at the time of the first millennium. There is also a street in the old Jewish quarter whose name is “The Lane of the Sect that Teaches the Scriptures.”

Asian cuisine is probably the easiest to adapt to a kosher kitchen. The substitution of veal, not chicken, for pork renders a dish identical in taste and texture to a recipe that calls for pork. The sauces are almost always vegetable-based. Oyster sauce is not allowed, but thick “dark soy” can be substituted without a problem. Thai fish sauce is usually made with anchovies and, although traditional red curry paste is made with 5% dried shrimp paste, there are many high-quality brands available in this country that do not contain anything trayf, or non-kosher, and they have excellent flavor. If ingredients are added in the proper order, a homemade Chinese dish will taste just as good as, if not better than, one from any restaurant you can imagine.

This year, don’t wait over an hour to get into a Chinese restaurant or half-cold takeout; prep early in the day and then whip out the dishes with or without your guests participating. I promise it will be fun!

Deep Fried Wonton

Every nationality has its filled dumplings and the Chinese are no different. Way before I saw these in restaurants, I watched my childhood friend make them in her home using ground meat and spinach. Use whatever meat you like but if you want your wonton to taste authentic and don’t want to use pork, ground veal works perfectly.

  • ½ pound prepared wonton skins
  • 2 tablespoons oil
  • ½ pound ground veal
  • 2 tablespoons light soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon cream sherry
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 6 canned whole water chestnuts, finely chopped
  • 1 scallion, finely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon cornstarch dissolved in 1 tablespoon water
  • 3 cups oil for frying

1.  To prepare the filling, set a 12-inch wok over high heat for 30 seconds. Pour in the 2 tablespoons of oil, swirl it about in the pan and heat for another 30 seconds. Turn the heat down if the oil begins to smoke.

2. Add the veal and stir-fry for 1 minute or until it loses its pink color.

3. Add the soy sauce, sherry, salt, water chestnuts and scallions and stir-fry for another minute.

4. Give the cornstarch mixture a stir to recombine and then pour it into the pan. Stir constantly until the mixture thickens. Transfer contents to a bowl and then cool to room temperature before assembling wonton.

5. Lay a wonton square so that the point is on top and looks like a diamond. Place 1½ teaspoons filling on each wonton center.

6. Wet your finger with a little water and brush the upper left and lower right edge with your wet finger.

7. Pretend that the diamond is like the points of a clock. Folding the dough in half, bring the point of dough at 6 o’clock up to just left of 12 o’clock. You now have a slightly off-centered triangle. Wet the bottom left point of dough with a little water.

8. Hold the bottom points in your left and right hands and pull down on the points so that the point in your right hand overlaps the wet point in your left hand. Pinch the dough together and set aside while you fold the remaining wonton. This may be done an hour or so in advance. If wontons have to wait longer, they should be covered with plastic wrap and refrigerated. Remove from refrigerator at least ½ hour before cooking.

9. To cook, place 3 cups of oil in a deep fryer or a clean 12-inch wok and heat the oil until it registers 375 degrees on a frying thermometer.

10. Deep-fry the wontons 6 at a time until they are golden. Transfer to paper towels to drain while you fry the rest. Serve with plum sauce.

NOTE: Fried wontons can be kept warm for an hour or so in a 250-degree oven or reheated for 5 minutes in a 450-degree oven.

Tina’s Tidbits:

  • Light soy sauce is the variety that you have in your home and are used to. It is thinner and less syrupy than dark soy although it too is dark.
  • I am probably the only food instructor that will tell you to use cream sherry. I do so because its flavor does not dissipate when heated and if you want to take a taste it is good to drink!
  • NEVER use cooking sherry, EVER! By definition it has salt in it and is the dregs of the winery. Inexpensive cream sherry can be purchased everywhere, so use that instead.
  • Cornstarch not only thickens the liquid in a dish, it leaves the ingredients shiny instead of dull. 

Chinese Hot and Sour Soup

This is the real McCoy. You will need to make a trip to a large supermarket or an Asian market but the ingredients you buy have a very long shelf life. These ingredients, especially the tiger lily buds, give the soup its authentic taste. That said, if you eliminate these ingredients and add others of your choice, the soup will still taste good, just different.

  • 4 large dried black Chinese mushrooms
  • 6 tree ear mushrooms
  • 6 dried tiger lily buds
  • 1 tablespoon oil
  • ¼ pound finely julienned veal scaloppini
  • 1 tablespoon light soy sauce
  • ½ cup finely shredded bamboo shoots
  • 5 cups chicken broth
  • Salt to taste
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons Chinese black vinegar or red wine vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon dark soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons cornstarch
  • 3 tablespoons water
  • 1 block firm white bean curd, cut into thin strips
  • 1 tablespoon sesame seed oil
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
  • 1 egg, slightly beaten
  • 2 tablespoons chopped scallions

1. Place mushrooms, tree ears and tiger lily buds in a glass bowl and cover with water. Microwave for 2 minutes, then allow mushrooms to sit for 15 minutes or longer until soft and then drain.

2. Cut off and discard the stems of the mushrooms. Cut both the mushrooms and the tree ears into thin slices. With your fingers shred the tiger lily buds, and if they are long, cut them in half.

3. Heat a wok or 3-quart saucepan for 30 seconds. Add the oil and heat for another 30 seconds. Add the shredded veal and stir-fry for 10 seconds, then add the light soy sauce and stir-fry for another 20 seconds or until meat is about done.

4. Add the mushrooms, tree ears, tiger lily buds and bamboo shoots. Stir quickly for 30 seconds and then add the broth and salt to taste. Stir in the vinegar and the dark soy. 

5. Combine the cornstarch and the water and stir into the simmering broth. When the mixture is slightly thickened, add the bean curd and bring to a boil.

6. Turn off the heat, add the sesame seed oil and the pepper and stir to blend.

7. Pour the soup into a hot tureen or keep in the pot with the heat still turned off.

8. Add the lightly beaten egg in a steady stream as you slowly stir in a circular motion. Sprinkle with the scallions and serve at once.

Serves 4-6

Tina’s Tidbits:

  • Dark soy is readily available in Asian markets but, if necessary, light soy like Kikkoman may be used instead. The soup won’t be as dark.
  • Boneless chicken thigh would be a good substitute for the veal since veal is very expensive and you need only ¼ pound.
  • The residual heat of the soup in the tureen is enough to cook the egg but not so hot that is scrambles it instantly upon contact with the soup. Stirring in circles creates the thin threads of egg so pour in slowly and stir constantly.

Chicken with Pine Nuts

This dish is now prevalent on menus, whereas when I learned it decades ago it was only a specialty item at some restaurants. Don’t save this recipe just for Chinese dinners. It is a perfect meal in hot weather or if you are just wanting to eat healthy.

  • 2 boneless chicken breasts
  • 2 teaspoons cornstarch
  • 1 egg white
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon cream sherry
  • ½ teaspoon sugar
  • 8 to 12 lettuce leaves (Bibb or iceberg)
  • 4 tablespoons oil
  • 2 fresh Serrano peppers, finely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon finely minced peeled fresh ginger root
  • 1 teaspoon cornstarch dissolved in 1 tablespoon water

1. Cut partially frozen chicken breast on a diagonal lengthwise into paper-thin slices. Cut each slice into matchstick shreds about 2 inches long.

2. Preheat the oven to 250 degrees and toast the pine nuts for 5 minutes or until they are lightly golden. Set aside in a bowl.

3. Place the 2 teaspoons of cornstarch in a bowl and toss the chicken until lightly coated. Add the egg white, salt, sherry and sugar to the chicken mixture and stir to thoroughly combine.

4. Separate the lettuce leaves and wash and pat dry. Arrange them on a serving platter and refrigerate.

5. Have the above ingredients and the chili peppers, ginger and cornstarch mixture within easy reach.

6. Set a 12-inch wok or a 10-inch skillet over high heat for 30 seconds. Pour in 1 tablespoon of oil and swirl it about in the pan. Heat for another 30 seconds, turning the heat down to moderate if the oil begins to smoke.

7. Add the diced peppers and stir-fry for 1 minute, then scoop them out and set aside in a dish.

8. Pour the remaining 3 tablespoons of oil into the pan, heat for 30 seconds and add the ginger. Stir for a few seconds, then add the chicken mixture and cook until chicken is white and separates.

9. Return the chili peppers to the pan and cook only long enough — about 10 seconds — to heat the peppers. Give the cornstarch mixture a quick stir to recombine and add to the pan.

10. Cook for a few seconds, stirring constantly until a clear glaze forms over the chicken.

11. Immediately transfer the contents to a bowl and top with the pine nuts. Serve with the lettuce leaves.

NOTE: To serve, spoon some of the mixture into a lettuce leaf and fold up like a burrito.

Tina’s Tidbits:

  • The technique of coating the chicken in cornstarch before adding the egg white creates the mouth sensation that the chicken is breaded without having any thick breading as in other preparations.
  • Cornstarch is always mixed with water first so that the fluid will distribute throughout the dish before solidifying.
  • When adding a thickener, always stir the food while doing so; otherwise you will have a thick, shiny blob in the middle of your dish and the sauce won’t be thickened at all.

Spun Apple or Banana

Many years ago, on the Upper West Side of New York, a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant would serve this delicious and fun dessert. Most restaurants do not make it this way because the coated fruit needs to be removed from the ice bath immediately. However, with friends around to grab their piece, this is a fun dessert to serve.

  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 egg
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
  • ½ cup plus 2 tablespoons cold water
  • 2 medium-sized firm apples and/or bananas
  • 3 cups plus 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 cup sugar
  • ¼ cup cold water
  • 1 tablespoon black sesame seeds

1. Lightly beat 1 egg and combine it with the vanilla and ½ cup plus 2 tablespoons water. Pour 1 cup flour into a good-sized bowl and, little by little, pour the beaten egg and water mixture into the flour, stirring constantly with a large spoon. Stir until you have formed a fairly smooth batter.

2. Peel, core and cut the apples into eighths. If using bananas, cut into 1½-inch chunks. 

3. Arrange the ingredients within easy reach. Set out a large serving plate that is lightly greased with oil and a large bowl that is filled with 1 quart of ice water and 8 ice cubes.

4. Heat 3 cups of oil in a 2- or 3-quart saucepan, or preferably a wok, until it reaches 375 degrees on a frying thermometer. At the same time, in a 10-inch frying pan, heat the 1 tablespoon oil with the remaining water and sugar.

5. Bring the sugar and water to a boil in a 2-quart saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring only until the sugar is dissolved. Cook this mixture briskly without stirring until the syrup registers 300 degrees on a thermometer or until it reaches the hard crack stage. Stir in the black sesame seeds and turn the heat down to its lowest setting.

6. Drop half of the fruit into the batter to coat well. Transfer the fruit pieces to the hot oil and deep-fry for one minute or until they turn amber. Immediately lift them out of the oil and put them into the hot syrup.

7. Stir the fruit pieces to coat them thoroughly with the hot syrup. Then, using tongs, drop them one at a time into the bowl of ice water. The syrup coating will harden instantly and coat each piece with a clear, hard, glaze. Immediately remove the finished apples (or bananas) to the lightly oiled plate and make the second batch in the same manner. Serve them as soon as you can. The delicate candy glaze will soften if allowed to stand too long.

Tina’s Tidbits:

  • Sugar solution should NEVER be stirred or crystals will form and you might wind up with a pan of sweet sand! If this happens, add some water to the pan to dissolve the sugar and boil again until it reaches the hard crack stage.
  • The hard crack stage means that when the sugar mixture is dropped into a small dish containing some water and ice cubes it will harden immediately and when you drop it on a plate it will clink and be hard like a lollipop.
  • Don’t be afraid of the amount of oil for frying. The fruit dumplings actually absorb very little oil. I know because I have measured the oil before and after to see.
  • It is better to have the sugar/sesame mixture in a deep pot rather than a frying pan so that the fruit dumplings can easily be coated with the syrup without having to disturb the mixture. Too much stirring will create sand.
  • I recommend using a wok or a deep-fat fryer for the oil so that you don’t have to worry about those little brown lines that form on your pot and are hard to remove.

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