Why we fell for wok and (spring) roll

The Jewish love of Chinese food is something that cannot be taken away

By Denise Phillips, February 17, 2011
Bang Bang chicken - one of many Chinese dishes Jews go crazy for

Bang Bang chicken - one of many Chinese dishes Jews go crazy for

What with the recent Chinese new year celebrations, a lot of people have been eating a lot of Chinese food. Jews are up there with the biggest chow mein chompers and hot-and-sour soup slurpers. And because there are no dairy ingredients in Chinese cuisine, no kashrut compromise is required when making Chinese meat dishes (once you have removed pork from the ingredients list, that is).

So in Jewish neighbourhoods around the world, kosher Chinese restaurants have sprung up as quickly as tower blocks in Shanghai. And there is now an increased range of kosher Chinese ingredients available in our shops making it a lot easier to sizzle up something authentic in the wok.

But Chinese cookery is about more than throwing a few ingredients in a pan and stirring. It recognises the five taste buds - salty, sweet, sour, bitter and peppery and hot - and these tastes appear in most Chinese dishes. In fact, the art of cooking Chinese is not only to chop and blend the ingredients, but to blend flavours through careful mixing.

The Chinese believe that each food ingredient has either yin (cooling) or yang (heating) or neutral properties and that there is a direct correlation between the food you eat and the yin yang balance in your body.

The majority of meats - beef, lamb, chicken and goose - are said to be yang or heating foods though duck is yin, fresh water fish is neutral and herbs and vegetables such as ginger, garlic, spring onion, coriander, chilli pepper and celery are yang. Beansprouts, green beans and spinach are yin.

Like Jews, the Chinese have numerous food customs. Sometimes it is based on appearance, so for example, serving a whole chicken during the Chinese new year season symbolises family togetherness, noodles represent longevity and spring rolls symbolise wealth.

Foods may have also special significance because of the way the word sounds. For instance, the Cantonese word for lettuce sounds like the word for "rising fortune", so it is common to serve a lettuce wrap, just as Jews serve carrots at new year because the Yiddush word for carrots, merren, means plentiful. As for dessert, a popular sweet is sticky rice cake which symbolises good fortune through its sweetness, while the layers denote abundance and the round shape signifies family reunion.

Recipe: bang bang chicken

Preparation time: 15 minutes.
Cooking time: 30 minutes.
Serves 6 people.


● 6 chicken breasts
● 100ml white wine
● ½ cucumber – thinly sliced
● 12 spring onions – thinly sliced
● 12 rice pancakes – or 6 little gem lettuces

For the dressing
● 1 teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns – crushed or use 1 teaspoon Chinese five spice or ordinary whole black pepper corns as a last resort
● 6 tablespoons light soy sauce
● 6 tablespoons caster sugar
● 6 tablespoon dry sherry
● 6 tablespoons tahini or sesame paste
● 6 teaspoons smooth peanut butter


● Pre-heat the oven to 200°C/ 400F°/gas mark 6.
● Put the chicken into a covered ovenware dish. Pour over the white wine and season with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.
● Cook the chicken for 30 minutes. Remove from the dish and set aside to cool.
● Toast the peppercorns in a dry frying pan. Crush with a pestle and mortar or coffee grinder.
● Mix in the remaining dressing ingredients and set aside.
● Slice the cucumber and spring onions into long strips.
● Shred the chicken into long thin strips.
● Arrange the chicken, cucumber and spring onion on a serving plate.
● Microwave the pancakes for 30 seconds - or arrange the lettuce leaves into little cups.
● To serve: Spread some sauce onto the pancakes and add some chicken, cucumber and spring onion.
● Roll up the pancakes and eat. If using the lettuce leaves, place the bang bang chicken inside the lettuce cups and pour over some sauce.

Last updated: 1:35pm, February 17 2011