Sabua—It's Hebrew for Chameleon

By Elizabeth Greenberg, Staff Writer

Sabua is also Hebrew for 'hypocrite,' but that's beside the point.

By now my faithful readers know that when Chinese cuisine lands on foreign shores, one of two things typically happens: Chinese food becomes a crucial part of the mainstream cuisine, or Chinese food adapts to the local palate and becomes immensely popular. In fact, I was afraid that my faithful readers may know what happens little too well: there are only so many ways information can simmer in your mind before you start to glaze over. I wanted a way to keep global Chinese food fresh for you.

 

 Sabua—It's Hebrew for Chameleon

By Elizabeth Greenberg, Staff Writer 

Sabua is also Hebrew for 'hypocrite,' but that's beside the point. 

By now my faithful readers know that when Chinese cuisine lands on foreign shores, one of two things typically happens: Chinese food becomes a crucial part of the mainstream cuisine, or Chinese food adapts to the local palate and becomes immensely popular. In fact, I was afraid that my faithful readers may know what happens little too well: there are only so many ways information can simmer in your mind before you start to glaze over. I wanted a way to keep global Chinese food fresh for you.

Then I remembered last month's feature about Chinese New Year's foods, in which I joked about the similarities between Chinese and Jewish cultures, and I had my answer—or rather, my question. Did the Jewish affinity for Chinese food extend throughout the world, or is it a purely American love affair? To find answers, I headed to the country with the largest Jewish population of any country in the world—New York.

No, I'm kidding, I went to Israel.

History

China and Israel have a long and twisty history, although the two countries only established official relations in 1992. Sometime in the 7th or 8th centuries, a group of Jews emigrated from Israel, traveled eastward, and eventually settled in China.   The Jews became a significant enough presence that an emperor during the Ming Dynasty gave 7 surnames specifically to the Jews. (Interestingly enough, two of those names, 金 and 石, correspond directly to two common Western Jewish surnames- Gold and Stone.)   A Jewish community flourished in Kaifeng from at least the 8th or 9th century until the late nineteenth century, and between 500 and 1000 residents of Kaifeng trace their ancestry back to that community.   And during the Holocaust, some 25,000 Jews fled to Shanghai to escape the Nazis. Most of these Jews emigrated either to the West or to Israel after 1949. 

The two countries have been connected in some way for about 1400 years. But does that connection extend to the food?

 In a word: no. In two words: no way.

 Why? You may have noticed that in the above list of connections, very few of them involve Chinese people moving to Israel. Although Israel is a popular tourist destination for wealthy Chinese, there is a comparatively small Chinese diaspora in Israel, and the popularity and prevalence of Chinese cuisine internationally is strongly linked to the Chinese population of those countries. It's no wonder that Jennifer Lee, author of the Fortune Cookie Chronicles, laments, "Where are the Chinese restaurants in Israel?" The seven Kaifeng-descended yeshiva students in Israel avoid local Chinese food in favor of shwarma. Inquiries on Chowhound about good Israeli Chinese restaurants get a few responses (usually Ben Yehuda, Yo Si Peking, or Corusin) but more responses advising travelers to stay away from local Chinese fare. "While it is possible to find an "israelized" version of a Chinese restaurant, I'd doubt that I would recommend something worth going out of your way," said one commenter. "Great places to eat are plentiful, just not Chinese." Others go even further. Xuan Chan, a senior official at the Chinese embassy in Tel Aviv, called Chinese restaurants in Israel "disgusting" and proclaimed that "many new and better places will have to open if you want the tourists from China to visit here."

So, as Jennifer Lee puts it, "the Jewish love of Chinese food is mostly an American phenomenon." 

Best Restaurant Worldwide?

Despite how heavily Israeli Chinese food is panned, it's possible to find positive reviews online for various Chinese restaurants in Israel (although they are generally written by Westerners unfamiliar with authentic Chinese food. One representative review by Michael Lazar begins: 'Chinese food. These two words conjure up images of sweet and sour pork, crispy duck and fried bananas.') However, I'm inclined to point you towards the restaurant with the best story rather than the best food. And to me, the restaurant with the best story is Yan Yan in Haifa, Israel. 

The owner, Kien Wong, was a Vietnamese-Chinese 'boat person,' one of the many Vietnamese refugees leaving Vietnam at the end of the Vietnam War. He arrived in Israel without any restaurant experience, but, as a LinkTV documentary shows, his Israeli friends quickly asked him to assist him at their restaurants. "I told them I didn't know how to cook," Wong said. "They said they will teach me. I asked them, 'You're teaching me how to cook Chinese?' They said, 'We can cook, but we don't look Chinese. You look Chinese.' "

After several years, Wong learned what was needed to run a Chinese restaurant in Israel, and the rest is relatively recent history. Wong is also a practicing Christian, which situates him uniquely among the mostly Jewish and Muslim residents of the Middle East.

As for the food? "If you know how to make almond chicken, green pepper beef, sweet and sour pork, throw in egg rolls and salad, and you're in business," Wong said. "Israelis will always eat those dishes. They won't try anything else."

 

Terms Of Use

Terms of Use All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without prior written permission of the publisher. For permission requests, contact [email protected] with subject line “Permission request.”

About

CHINAINSIGHT (CI) is published monthly ((except July/August and November/December are combined) by China Insight, Inc., an independent, privately owned company started in 2001 and headquartered in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota.

CHINAINSIGHT is the only English-language American newspaper to focus exclusively on connections between the United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

Our goal is to develop a mutual understanding of each other’s cultures and business environments and to foster U.S.-China cultural and business harmony.