Growing up in a Jewish community in the US, I have always been aware of the connection between Chinese and Jewish culture; even if superficially under the umbrella of American Jewish traditions like the customary Chinese dinner on Christmas. Since leaving the US, my work and experience with a Chinese chef and cookery school here in London and in Hong Kong has deepened my understanding of Chinese culture, weaving threads of similarities between the Chinese cultures I have come to experience, and my own Jewish American experience.
This past Tuesday, 5th February began the celebration of the Lunar/Chinese New Year. Though often mistakenly perceived to consist of only one day, this holiday is celebrated through out Asia over the course of two weeks; during which many businesses and industries shut down to allow for workers to spend time with family and friends. For many this will be the only sanctioned time off all year.
Having written countless articles over the years about Lunar (Chinese) New Year, its traditions and customs have become second nature to me. However it was only recently that I had a light bulb moment on why so many of them felt familiar- it wasn’t just the annual repetition. Despite the outward appearance of being very different and separate, the Jewish and Chinese traditions and cultures themselves are actually incredibly similar.
Let’s look at New Years celebrations within the two cultures, whilst keeping in mind the contrast of more traditionally western New Years celebrations (ie: 31st Dec, drinks, fireworks and resolutions):
Jewish culture– New Year falls on a different day each year, based on the lunar calendar
Chinese culture: Same
Jewish culture: New Years celebrations carry on for nearly two weeks before commencing in a second holiday (Rosh Hashanah into Yom Yippur)
Chinese culture: Same (from Reunion Dinner into Lantern festival)
Jewish culture: Very specific foods are symbolically eaten during this time to wish good health and prosperity to others (braided round challah, apples and honey, honey cake)
Chinese culture: Same (whole fish, wontons, long uncut noodles)
These two celebrations in both Jewish and Chinese culture are vastly different from many other forms of New Years celebrations, and parallel each other on multiple fronts.
Delving further into the culture I’ve also found the following to be true on most occasions;
Jewish culture: A high value is placed on family, education and the respect of elders. During special holidays and celebrations tasks are delegated often between the young and the old which symbolise respect: children perform tasks like the washing of the hands, the eldest woman lights the candles, the eldest man blesses the bread etc.
Though more widely interpreted in modern day culture, professions which require additional education or specialisation of some kind (previous examples famously include professions like doctors, lawyers, and accountants) are often encouraged and highly valued, echoing back to the the value placed in education within the Jewish community.
Chinese culture: SAME. An incredibly high value is placed on family, education and the respect of elders. Children often refer to older adults as their ‘aunties and uncles’ as a sign of respect and closeness no matter the familiar connection. Elders may eat first at the family table, children may be encouraged to do tasks like pouring the tea.
And similarly, professions which include both hard work and additional education or specialisation are often valued within this culture.
Underneath the surface of one-culture-eats-pork-the-other-doesn’t, these two cultures have so much in common, its no wonder there’s a natural understanding between the two.
In 2016 I was fortunate enough to experience another section of this culture close up for the first time; on a research trip guided by my writing partner and chef Jeremy Pang in preparation for our book Hong Kong Diner. In was on this trip I discovered an entirely new cuisine; one which had been heavily influenced by British culture, setting it apart from any Chinese cuisine I had ever encountered.
Tomatoes are not what we typically think of when we think of Chinese food, but I can attest that in Hong Kong they are considered king. You would be hard pressed to find a restaurant, cafe or diner that doesn’t serve them in some form: whether its tinned tomatoes over a noodle soup, the use of ketchup in a good sweet and sour, fresh tomatoes cut up into a smacked cucumber salad or stir fried into a rich and savoury egg scramble. Tomatoes are a base staple for Hong Kong cuisine.
This tomato egg with spring onion dish is, in my opinion, one of the hidden gem recipes from the book; and one of my personal favourites as a substitute for a fry up or all American breakfast. In fact you probably have most of the ingredients already. Don’t have a wok? A good frying pan will work just fine.
If you’re thinking about symbolism of food during this time of year the colour red (tomatoes) is a sign of good luck, green (spring onion) can either symbolise growth and new life or intelligence and eggs symbolise fertility and family prosperity. Serve this dish alongside a bowl of uncut noodles to symbolise long life and you’ve got yourself a quick and delicious meal to help usher in the Year of the Pig. And it just so happens to be kosher.