Friday, September 24, 2010

A Taste of Jewish Shanghai Past -- Sweet and Sour Memories (and Recipe)

The Bund, once center of Shanghai Jewish life, today
There is something about China and the Jews.

Maybe it has to something do with a reverence for education, a shared sense of being an outsider, or just the appreciation many U.S. Jews have of growing up eating moo moo gai pan, but the stories of long assimilated Keifeng Jews and the more recent Jewish communities in Harbin and Shanghai attract us as much as the promise of egg fu young or even kung pao chicken.

The stories of lives led and a culture lost have an appeal that affects Jews beyond those whose heritage has been touched by these places, which includes communities of Russian Jews who fled pograms and poverty and later the Russian revolution through Siberia and the Trans-Siberian railroad into Harbin, Iraqi and Indian-Iraqi Jews leading what has often been depicted as idealized colonialized life in pre-World War II Shanghai or the grimmer realities of hunger, internment and uncertainity faced by Holocaust refugees in a Shanghai ghetto.

Recently at the Jewish Community Center of the East Bay, in Berkeley, CA, Inna Mink and Dianne Jacob got to explore their families' Chinese heritage and food memories and we got a taste literally and figuratively of a lost world, with local restaurants supplying some typical Shanghaiese foods for tasting. The event was co-sponsored by the Asian Culinary Forum.

The evening, tied to the closing of the Shanghai exhibit at San Francisco's Asian Art Museum, was supposed to be about food, but as usual it is hard to divorce the food from its place in memory, family, culture, society, economics and identity.

Mink's grandparents left the pogroms of Russia for Harbin, what was then essentially a Manchurian Chinese shtel without plumbing or much of anything else. It's only recommendation was that it was not Russia and they felt safe. When Mink was two, her parents thought there would be more economic opportunity in Shanghai and moved 1,000 miles to the south.  The lived in the French Concession, an upper class European section of a city divided by race, class and economics thanks to the Opium Wars and its position on the edge of China on the Yangtze River.

Mink is a grandmotherly woman who came to the U.S. after WWII, but her face softens, her smile broadens and a playful young woman peeks out from under her auburn bangs when she talks about growing up in Shanghai in general and eating there in particular.  "The food was spectacular in Shanghai," she said, almost with a sigh.

She and her mother did not cook nor did any in their set. Servants were plentiful. Food in the home was in the Russian style with beef stroganoff and chicken cutlets called kotleta po-kievksy oozing butter. Jewish style food and kosher considerations (such as mixing meat and milk products) were only seen on the table during the High Holidays and Passover.

Mink and her family mingled with her father's Chinese factory managers and customers, sometimes eating in their homes. Once a month they would visit their favorite Chinese restaurant Sun Ya, on what Mink called Bubbling Well Road (or Nanking) ; a restaurant whose food was so defining for her she has saved a menu from it. (The Cantonese-style restaurant is still in business and is now known as Xinya.) 

The family was Jewish, ate Russian food and sent Mink to a French school, but even now it is the Chinese part of her life that she feels has shaped her. The food is still compelling and the pull of Chinatowns and Asian restaurants is strong. Food is the only memory from that time she can still taste, but the time and place have marked her and made China part of her heritage.

Mink (left) and Jacobs
 Jacob's story differs in many aspects from Mink's. Her family was from a Baghdadi Jewish background.  These were  Mitzrachi, or Eastern Jews, with roots in Iraq and in India (where many Iraqi Jews settled before they came to Shanghai.) The Iraqi-Indian Iraqi community began settling in Shanghai the later half of the 1800s. By World War II it was made up of about 500 families who developed diverse Jewish organizations as well as built up the famous waterfront Bund and settled in the International concessions. Trade and business had brought them to Shanghai.  Orthodox and observant, for them events based in the synagogue and the home were of primary importance, but many went out for drinks, shows and other nightlife. As with Mink, servants ruled the kitchen and most of the Jewish women did not cook. The household cooks made British, Chinese foods, and dishes reflecting the Jews' Iraqi and Indian roots with adaptations for local food ways such as fresh bamboo shoots in the stew and rice flour dumplings instead of semolina.

"Usually it was an American breakfast, a British luncheon, an Iraqi-style tea with pastries and fruit and supper was Iraqi or Indian Jewish food," she said.

Jacob was born in Canada after her parents had immigrated in 1949, but she grew up in a home that identified strongly as Chinese. Her parents spoke to Jacob and her sister in the Shanghai dialect (or in Arabic), ate with chopsticks and tried to adapt New World ingredients and Chinatown pantry items into the remembered foods of their past and a connection to what had once been their home. Jacobs recalls her mother's version of spaghetti, a dish her mom had never eaten before, made with copious amounts of onions and black pepper and served with grilled chicken livers. Jacobs was in college before she had pasta with meatballs, tomato sauce and basil. She described the dish to her astonished mother who thought the combination totally unappetizing.

And once a month the family would eat out at a local Chinese restaurant, where, according to Jacob, Jewish "amnesia" would set in, and the Jewish dietary laws would be forgotten for a taste of the past and a connection with a life and identity they had left behind.

Growing up focused on the food of a country half a world away left an impact on Jacob. 

"I'd say I feel very Asian identified. I'm very comfortable with anything Chinese, particularly food."

The families of Mink and Jacob had very different experiences after the Japanese occupied the city in 1937.  Jacob's father's family, who had Iraqi citizenship, was considered stateless and was not allowed to work. One uncle made peanut butter and sold it on the street to survive.  Her mother's family held British papers and was interned for five years across the river in an encampment in the then rural Pudong area.  There was never enough food and what there was often spoiled and full of bugs.

As a Russian, Mink's wartime experiences were much less harsh.  There were some travel restrictions and shortages of such things as oranges, butter, eggs and gasoline, but they "didn't have to give up much," she said.

It was during World War II that the third major group of Jews arrived in Shanghai, refugees from the Holocaust.  These were Eastern European Jews many of whom were aided in their flight by visas issued by Japanese and Chinese consular authorities in Poland and Austria.  The Japanese eventually moved many of the 20,000 refugees into a  three-quarters of a square-mile ghetto in the Honkou district (sometimes spelled Honkow) without first moving out the area's 200,000 Shanghai residents in what already was an overcrowded and run down area.  Restrictions on the refugees increased as the war progressed, but the Japanese governor never acceded to the Nazi demands to hand over the Jews.

Neither Jacob or Mink had Honkou experiences to share, but several audience members had family members who were restricted to the ghetto and they spoke about the hardships, lack of food and rationing that their loved ones endured.  One woman told of how her Austrian grandmother made Viennese pastries and sold them in coffee houses to help provide for her family.

There were no recipes given out that night and both speakers said they knew of no cookbook that could capture the special food that their families had eaten in Shanghai. (One audience member commented "recipes were passed down from one generation to another like the Torah.") Most if not all the Jews of that period left China once the Communists came to power. The Jews in China today are mostly Israeli and other consulate and embassy personnel, Chabad emissaries, expatriate executives and other foreign workers. 
Ohel Moshe is now a museum

China itself seems to appreciate the richness and diversity Jews brought to Shanghai and has restored some buildings important to Jewish heritage including one of the Eastern European Jewish communities' synagogues and put in a Jewish museum. The exhibit is mostly photo and text panels and focuses on the Holocaust refugee experience, though, there is not much tangible evidence of the community itself except for on the second floor where an old sewing machine and other goods left behind by Jewish emigres are displayed.

There is almost no Judaica in the temple building, but there was  a mezzuah  (prayer scroll in a small container) hung on the door frame. When I was there, a young Chinese security guard came up to me, pointed to it with pride and in halting English told me it was something the Jews used to touch when they came into the building. I didn't explain to him that I knew all about these door hangings, I just thanked him. Then I reached up, touched it and kissed my fingers.

I remembered that moment the other night as Mink and Jacob were sharing their memories. I remember feeling connected to those Jews so long ago in such an exotic place by the universal Jewish act of touching a mezzuah. As Mink and Jacob talked that memory came back to me and I though maybe for me as well as others the appeal of Jews in China was that even in what to us is an exotic setting we still had that connection of ritual and meaning that we could share, even across time. And for Mink, Jacob and others with Harbin and Shanghai in their past, the food they ate was as an important link to them as any ritual, photograph or memory. It was a way to define their identity. Their lives in China were multicultural and multilingual. (Mink's family spoke Russian, Chinese, English and French. Jacob's family spoke Arabic, English and Chinese.) Perhaps they only became aware of themselves as being an Asian Jew after their families had left China, but it is now a haunting part of who they are.


Here are some typical Shanghai recipes for drunken chicken, vegetarian goose and sweet and sour lotus root from the Asian Culinary Forum site. the recipes are by Chef Nei Chia Ji of Jai Yun and were prepared for an event at the Asian Art Museum in conjunction with the culinary forum as part of the programming centered around the museum's Shanghai exhibit.

The  1935 menu  from Mink's favorite restaurant, Sun Ya, is almost more like an informational brochure about Cantonese food than a menu.  Sweet and sour dishes seemed to be fairly popular, including Mandarin fish, called the "famous fish of Shanghai." Since I learned a version of sweet and sour sauce in my Shanghai cooking class and later adapted the recipe for fish, I include that recipe here.

Sweet and sour in Shanghai class
 Sweet and Sour Fish
Serves 4 or 6 as part of a multi-course Chinese-style meal

The ketchup in the recipe is totally authentic, much to my surprise. I haven’t done the research so I don’t know if sweet and sour sauce began life in this country (perhaps as an adaption of a traditional dish or a unique one based on Western food availability) and migrated there or a traditional one that was adapted as Western ingredients made their way to China. 
Note: I used a combination of regular white distilled vinegar and Chinese black rice vinegar (I used one third black rice vinegar), which gave the dish a nice taste and toned down the bright red sweet and sour color (as does the soy sauce). You could also try apple cider vinegar instead of the Chinese black rice vinegar or just using all white distilled vinegar. Avoid the Japanese rice vinegars; they are too mild to give the zing we associate with sweet and sour sauce.

4 1/2 tablespoons sugar
4 tablespoons vinegar (see note above)
2 teaspoons soy sauce
4 tablespoons tomato ketchup
1 cup water
¼ teaspoon salt

1 ½ pounds thickish filets of rock cod, cod, halibut, pretty much any non-oily white fish
1 teaspoon salt or to taste
2 eggs, beaten
3 tablespoons of cornstarch
Canola or other vegetable oil for deep frying

Stir Fry
4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced (about a heaping tablespoon)
2 green onions, white and light green parts, thinly sliced (about 2 tablespoons)
2 medium bell peppers (I used one green and one red), cut into 1” or so pieces
1 tablespoon cornstarch dissolved in 1 tablespoon water
8 ounces of pineapple cut in 1” cubes, (fresh or drained canned)

Make the sauce first in either the wok or another pan.
Combine all the sauce ingredients in the pot. Heat over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the sugar is dissolved and the mixture is well combined. Taste and correct the seasoning, adding more vinegar, ketchup and/or salt until you have the preferred balance of sweet vs. sour. Set aside off the heat. (If you have used the wok for the sauce, thoroughly clean and dry it before frying fish.)

Prepare fish. Rinse and pat fish dry. Sprinkle fish with salt. Cut into approximately 1 ½ inch cubes or chunks. In a large enough bowl to hold all the fish cubes, combine eggs and cornstarch until well mixed. Add the fish cubes and toss to coat thoroughly.

Heat oil for deep frying in the wok or another deep, large pan, such as a chicken fryer or sauté pan. Heat oil until is medium to very hot (about 375 degrees F). (To see if the oil is ready, drop a bit of batter if it immediately sizzles and begins to brown, the oil is ready.) Add a few fish cubes at a time, frying until golden brown and cooked through and removing to drain on a plate. Continue until all the fish cubes are fried. Set aside.

Properly dispose of the oil, leaving about 2 tablespoons in the wok or pan. Strain out any left over fried bits with a slotted spoon or skimmer. Heat oil until very hot. Add the garlic and stir fry, being careful not to burn it. Add the scallions and the pepper pieces and stir fry until the pepper pieces begin to soften. Add in reserved sauce and bring to a boil. Slowly drizzle in the cornstarch mixture, stirring until it is well combined and the sauce is thickened. It should still be liquid, but not runny or thick and should coat the back of the spoon. Stir in pineapple chunks and the fish. Mix to evenly distribute sauce. Serve with rice.

About the photos: Shanghai and stir fry  photos taken by me in 2008.


Dianne Jacob said...


What a scholarly discussion, well researched. I had no idea you were such an excellent note-taker. Thank you for detailing this event so beautifully.

Anonymous said...

that is a fantastic read. I might just hit up the Hongkou Jewish Quarter of Shanghai during my November trip. Fascinating facts that made Dianne J even more awesome in my mind.

FJKramer said...

Dear Dianne,
I'm a complusive note taker actually. My problem is that I end up either 1. not being able to read what I wrote or 2. not being able to find where I put the notebook I wrote it in!

Dear Sinosoul:
Thanks. And I agree with you re Dianne.


Alice said...

I am Chinese (born in the US) and my husband was born in China, orphaned in WW II, and raised in the US by a Jewish family, so we have more than a casual interest in things Chinese and Jewish. The White Russians helped him survive during the war when he was living in the streets by occasionally letting him sleep and eat in their restaurants.

FJKramer said...

Dear Alice,
Thank you for sharing your story.
I've heard from others that have what some call "Chewish" connections.

Take care,

Unknown said...

Wonderful article, Faith. You are an outstanding writer. I love your blog and your recipes
Your East Coast shines thru: Moo Goo Gai Pan? Have not seen it out here.

FJKramer said...

Thanks AWCS -- re moo goo etc. I haven't seen it but I also haven't looked for it! Seems like they have different sterotyped food out here -- general tsao's chicken anyone?