The Jewish-American tradition of eating Chinese food on Christmas is rooted in pragmatism and loneliness. In the mid-1900s, America’s two largest non-Christian immigrant populations shared the experience of watching the world grind to a standstill each December as their friends and neighbors vanished into their extended families, leaving behind empty cities where everything was closed — except the Chinese restaurants.
On a windy Christmas night in Albuquerque, New Mexico, I took a walk in the footsteps of my immigrant forefathers and took my two little boys out for Chinese food. My wife isn’t of the tribe, but she works on Christmas like a good Jewish-American, making it easier for observant co-workers to take the day off. Like the Chinese-food-eating trailblazers who started the tradition, we had nowhere to go and not much else to do.
I was the restaurant critic of record for the local paper and had eaten at every Chinese restaurant of note, so I knew exactly where I wanted to go for Chinese Christmas: Budai, a strip-mall gem by Interstate 25, housed between a dollar store and an accountant’s office.
Budai is run by a Taiwanese-born couple who opened the restaurant because Hsia, the husband, was turned down for a job at Panda Express. In the dining room, his wife, Elsa, cheerfully calls him “Panda Express reject.”
Elsa helped us craft a meal in the spirit of our Chinese-food-eating ancestors, many of whom took advantage of the pleasures of those non-Kosher kitchens.
We ate mapo tofu, also known as “pockmarked grandmother’s bean curd.” It didn’t look like it contained pork — just a plate of tofu with a tasty, chunky sauce. I also smacked down an order of dong po pork — chunks of braised pork belly in a thin, dark sauce — to commemorate those times when an errant forefather might have had the opportunity to dine alone and eat glorious pork in full view.
Before leaving Budai, we placed an order for my wife, a veggievore, who was slaving away for that holiday pay. Budai’s vegetable entrees include heaping, oblong plates piled high with lightly seasoned Asian greens such as pea tips, sweet potato leaves and water spinach.
I reached out to Elsa recently, in search of guidance for another Chinese-Jewish-American Christmas.
Specifically, I wanted to know about greens cooked qing-chao-style, which means “clear stir-fry.” It’s a simple, subtle recipe that doesn’t even require soy sauce, focusing the eater’s attention squarely on the vegetable itself.
But despite being simple, Elsa cautioned, it’s not necessarily recommended for civilians to try at home.
“It needs a very high-temperature stove and a high-powered exhaust,” she said.
I’d heard her warnings before. Sure, she was right about the gooey oyster-and-bean-sprout omelet thing on the secret menu.
Still, I was glad to have at least tried that omelet and tested my limits, and I was ready to try qing chao stir-fry. I went on a bit of a rampage, making it with any greens I could get my hands on, including spinach, bok choy and even peeled celery. It was fantastic every time I made it, with every green I tried, different types of broth and every other variation Elsa suggested.
The technique begins with a puddle of hot oil in a wok or pan, into which you add either garlic, shallot or Sichuan peppercorns and briefly fry at high heat. The most interesting flavor comes from Sichuan peppercorns (no relation to black pepper). These pink seeds have an otherworldly tingly and piney taste that’s as much a feeling in your mouth as a flavor. Tossed in a mound of spinach, the Sichuan peppercorns give the arrangement a taste that’s hard to pin down and a look of mistletoe.
Qing chao spinach
I leave spinach leaves whole, even big ones. Other greens, like bok choy, should be chopped or they will be too tough to chew through.
Makes two servings
Heat the oil on high in a wok or heavy pan. Add the Sichuan peppercorns and stir-fry for 30 seconds. Add the spinach, broth and wine, in that order. Stir the mixture around quickly, cooking everything evenly. Add the white pepper. Stir-fry for one minute on high heat so the sauce starts to thicken but doesn’t completely evaporate. Season with salt and serve.
Dong po pork
Don’t panic at the quantity of soy sauce and sugar. Most of it stays in the braising liquid.
Makes four servings
Optional: Sichuan chili peppers or
similar small, thin-skinned peppers
Boil a large pot of salted water. Add the pork and simmer for five minutes. Remove and drain.
Add the scallions, ginger, five spice, chili peppers (if using) and sugar to a clay pot or any pan that has a tight, heavy lid. Add the chunks of pork, skin sides down. Pour in the soy sauce and wine and add enough water to just cover the pork. Cook for two hours on low heat with the lid on, turning the pieces after an hour. Thicken some gravy if you wish with cornstarch or simmering. Serve hot, drenched in the sauce.
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