Exploring the origins of Jews dining on Chinese food at Christmas

Jewish people eating Chinese food on Christmas Day is as much a holiday tradition as Santa Claus himself.

"Jews started populating Chinese restaurants in New York the 1890s," said Rabbj Joshua Plaut, the unofficial expert on the topic. He wrote the book "A Kosher Christmas."

"It's very hamish as we say in Yiddish, or very homey, and friendly people running around waiters banging into each other and it's fun," Plaut said of why Jews like to go to Chinese restaurants on Christmas Eve.

Plaut, who is also the executive director of American Friends of Rabin Medical, will be one of the speakers Friday Night at Chow X Judaism at the Museum of Food and Drink in Williamsburg. The event will explore the Christmas connection between Chinese cuisine and Jews through a number of lectures and special dishes like matzo ball/wonton soup.

"There's this long history of Jewish Americans going out to Chinese restaurants around Christmas and year-round, so we wanted to look more into that," said Catherine Piccoli, the curator of the Museum of Food and Drink.

The museum has featured the "Chow" exhibit, on the origins of the country's 50,000 Chinese restaurants, for over a year. The weekend before Christmas seemed like the perfect time for a look at how the Jewish and Chinese cultures intersect.

Rabbi Plaut said the Jewish Christmas tradition may have started back near the turn of the 20th century because of the proximity of the Lower East Side and Chinatown.

"There were in many instances, 18 or 20 Chinese restaurants in the areas where Jewish immigrants lived," he explained.

Of course, there's also the fact that not much else was open beside Chinese restaurants, and Jews were looking for something to do on Christmas Eve and Christmas.

Plaut said Chinese restaurants are also more likely to be "kosher style," because they rarely have dairy items on their menus, and there is no mixing of meat and dairy.

"If there is pork or shellfish, it's hidden in a wonton," Plaut jokes. "It's what we call 'safe traif,' you don't see it, you can eat it."

Friday's Chow X Judaism event is sold out but the general "Chow" exhibit will be open until March 2019. The price of admission includes samples of freshly-cooked Chinese food and fortune cookies.