Need a lawyer over Christmas? Head to Chinatown. While not that funny, it’s an old joke with a rich sociocultural backbone: the connection between Chinese food and Jews. Especially on Christmas Eve, but a love that goes year-round, too.
One could say it’s a classic tale that began when two minority groups both faced a significant holiday that neither celebrates, they just end up finding each other. And while this is a meet cute we can get behind, Millie Chan realized in the 1980s that the rules governing kashrut are similar to the spirit and formation of Chinese cooking, a happy ending indeed.
Millie Chan was born and raised in San Antonio, hailing from a family of great Cantonese-style cooks who owned Chinese restaurants in Texas. Millie ended up a New Yorker, and she got involved in teaching kosher versions of Chinese food after being asked by friends for tips, and the results are spectacular. Millie Chan’s Kosher Chinese Kitchen came out in 1990, nearly a decade after she began teaching amended recipes at the amazing Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue on Manhattan’s west side (full disclosure: that was my synagogue when I was living in NYC).
The more Millie got to understand kashrut, the more she found the similarities between the two styles of cooking. Millie writes, “Jewish dietary laws have religious and spiritual foundations based on a reverence for life. These beliefs are similar to those shared by the Chinese early in the development of their cuisine, Buddhists forbade consuming the flesh of all animals, and the Taoists had similar restrictions. The foundation of Chinese cooking, however, is not religious but ethical and pragmatic, and these two influences developed together.”
Millie argues that Chinese cooking is based on techniques, not ingredients.
The cookbook is terrific. Millie brilliantly kashered recipes, and also included ones that required no adjustments from the original, but are excellent versions from a seasoned pro that already fit Jewish dietary rules.
The cookbook also lists the various certifications and hechsher markings, of the time, that do/did appear on pre-made Chinese sauces in the USA. There are also recipes to make those sauces from scratch for for those who can’t find a certified brand, or just prefer to do it all.
It was a tough call choosing just one recipe, however, we decided to go BIG! A classic. Especially perfect for a New Year’s Eve celebration.
Peking duck is the high point of banquets in northern China. The dish is a study in contrasts: the crispiness of the skin with the softness of the pancake wrapper; the red-brown glaze against the pearly white and light green of the scallion brushes, served on a white wrapper; and finally, the mingling of the sweetness and spiciness of all the ingredients. The duck skin is the main feature of this dish — the Chinese prize this delicacy. To produce it, you hang the duck to dry for several hours, giving your kitchen the temporary appearance of a Chinese shop. This dish takes patience, but you’ll be enormously satisfied with the results.
- I duck, about 5 pounds, fresh or frozen
- 6 cups water
- 2 tablespoons honey
- 1 slice fresh ginger
- 1 scallion
- 2 tablespoons rice wine
- 1 tablespoon distilled white vinegar
- 3 tablespoons cornstarch mixed with 1/2 cup water
- 10 small scallions, for scallion brushes
- 20 Peking Pancakes (buy ready-made or look-up a recipe that best suits)
- 1/2 cup Hoisin Sauce
- Cut off two lower wing joints of duck and save them for making stock. Remove and discard excess skin and fat at the neck and cavity. Rinse, then dry the duck with paper towels. Prepare for hanging by pushing a chopstick into the neck and through the flesh out the joint of one wing, keeping close to the bone as you push chopstick through. Push the other end of the same chopstick through to the other wing joint. The wings should extend straight out from the body. Tie a 10-inch length of string around the exposed part of the chopstick at the neck opening, then make a loop at the free end for hanging.
- Put the water in a wok and bring to a boil. Mix in the honey. Add the ginger, scallion, sherry and vinegar, and simmer for 1 minute. Stir the cornstarch mixture and slowly add it to the simmering wok, stirring constantly until the liquid thickens. Keep it at a simmer.
- Take the duck by the string, hold it just above the simmering wok and ladle the hot liquid over, making sure you coat the entire surface of the duck. The duck will be heaven and the liquid hot, so have someone assist you. Repeat the ladling process twice. This coating will make the skin crispy and give it a glistening reddish brown color.
- Hang the dripping duck, with a pan under it, in a cool airy place near an open window for at least 4 hours, or until the skin feels dry to the touch. (Or use an electric fan to dry the hanging duck.) This extended drying period is why most restaurants require a one-day notice for this dish.
- Make the scallion brushes. Using only the white part of the scallion, cut each into 3-inch-long pieces. Use the tip f a sharp knife to cut several lengthwise slits at both ends of each section. Place the scallions in a bowl of cold water ad refrigerate until the ends curl. Drain.
- Oil the centre of the top rack of your oven. Place a roasting pan on the lowest level of the oven and pour 2 to 3 inches of water in the pan. The water reduces the splattering from the fat as it drips from the duck.
- Preheat the over to 350 F. Untie the duck and remove the chopstick. Place the duck breast side up on oiled rack. Put duck in the oven and roast for 30 minutes. Turn duck breast side down and roast for 45 minutes more. Turn the duck breast side up again and roast for another 30 minutes or until reddish brown.
- About 30 minutes before the duck is done, wrap the Peking Pancakes in a damp cloth and steam them for 10 minutes; keep hot in the steamer over low heat until ready to serve.
- Use a cleaver to cut off duck wings stubs and drumsticks. Make a cut down the skin on both sides of the duck. With a finger, carefully pull off the hot, crisp skin from the breast and back. Scrape off and discard the fat, if any, then cut the skin into 2 X 2-inch pieces. Arrange the skin on a large, warm serving platter. Remove the meat from the carcass and slice into 2 X 1/2-inch pieces and arrange with the drumsticks and wings on a large, warm serving platter. Remove the meat from the carcass and slice into 2 X 1.2 pieces and arrange with the drumsticks and wings on another warm serving platter. Place HoisinSauce on a small plate and arrange scallion brushes around it. Serve the duck, pancakes, and sauce together.
- Each guest takes a pancake and a scallion brush, then dips the scallion brush into the Hoisin Sauce and brushes some of it on the pancake. The guest then places the scallion, a piece of duck skin and a piece of duck meat in the centre of the pancake, folds up one end of the pancake and rolls it into a cylinder, to be eaten by hand.
An earlier version of this story was published on this site on January 21, 2021.