Safe Treyf

“Eating Chinese” is part of Jewish culture in North America. How did this happen? How did Eastern European Jews in North America come to adopt Chinese restaurant food, especially in New York City?

Kosher food is an elaboration of three dietary rules: do not eat “unclean” animals and fish; do not inhumanely slaughter animals; and do not mix milk and meat. Many Jews, whether religious or not, had been powerfully socialized in their dietary customs. As a result, many immigrant, second-, and even third-generation Jews in North America found it difficult to break away from these taboos, especially the bans against mixing meat with milk and against eating pork and shellfish.

Chinese food seems an unlikely fit for early Jewish immigrants however, as Chinese cooking does incorporate pork, shrimp, lobster, and other forbidden items. But Chinese cooking disguises the tabooed ingredients by cutting, chopping, and mincing them. Chinese food could be adopted by Jews because the forbidden substances were so disguised that dishes did not reflexively repulse. And unlike virtually any other cuisine available in North America, traditional Chinese cooking rarely uses milk products.

The chopped-up treyf, the lack of milk, the use of some familiar ingredients, the use of tea without milk and the fact that they were not Christians, and perhaps even other factors such as the formality of Chinese manners, made Chinese restaurants and their food feel safe for Jews. Chinese food was safe treyf.

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