Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Pigging out

Chinese food is a not-so-secret craving of many Jews, despite all that pesky pork

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LYING in bed due to a protracted illness, unable to eat solid food or even sleep due to horrifying pain, I became obsessed with something I could not have: A pork-filled, pan-fried dumpling.

This humble little snack, also known as a potsticker or a Chinese perogy, may just be the ultimate foodstuff in terms of the combination of textures and flavours it imparts on the palate.

Food snobs sometimes call that "mouthfeel" in their endless efforts to sexualize the simple act of eating. But there was nothing decadent about my craving during several weeks in February when I couldn't down anything more substantial than malted soy milk and slippery Jell-O.

I simply had to have a pan-fried dumpling, a little oval of doughy bliss invented by the Asian version of angels -- or Hong Kong dim sum chefs, who may in fact be the same entities.

Place a pan-fried dumpling in your mouth, and the first thing you sense is the crispy, gloriously greasy crust on the bottom, the calling card of every deep-fried comfort food on the planet. But the rest of the exterior is soft, steamed dough that yields to the tooth with the perfect pliability the Italians call al dente.

Once punctured, the little package explodes in the mouth with a small burst of molten liquid -- the fat released from a two-stage process of frying and steaming. And then there's the chewy centre, a small mass of ground pork, minced ginger and green onion that some chefs dye bright pink with the extract of annatto seeds.

Slathered in sweet red vinegar, pan-fried dumplings were indeed the first food I consumed when I was finally able to rejoin the majority of humans who masticate their nutriments instead of slurping them from a straw.

At first, I saw my dumpling obsession in simple terms of food-lust fantasy. After all, I had lost about 30 pounds from de facto starvation over a matter of weeks.

But then I realized a certain ethnic imperative was actually at play: As a Jew, it was only natural that my forbidden fruit would be a Chinese foodstuff, and a porky Chinese foodstuff in particular.

The old stereotype about Jews and Chinese food is no stereotype at all, I'm forced to concede. And I'm not alone in this conclusion -- there's even been academic research into the symbiotic relationship between North American Jewish and Chinese communities, and it all boils down to food.

Observant Jews, of course, do not eat barbecued pork, breaded shrimp, stir-fried crab in black bean sauce or any other form of food that's prepared in a non-kosher kitchen or is otherwise treyf to begin with.

But in a city like Winnipeg, where the vast majority of Jews live mostly secular lifestyles, it's easier to spot somebody wearing an "I love Calgary" T-shirt than it is to find a Member of The Tribe who actually eschews the pleasures of the bacon cheeseburger.

Still, thanks to deeply ingrained cultural predilections, many Jews will avoid eating pork or other non-kosher foods at home, preferring to break the ethno-culinary taboo in restaurants.

And Chinese restaurants have traditionally been the main scene of this minor culinary crime: For most North American Jews, the Sunday dinner of their childhood involved breaded veal, lemon chicken and chow mein laden with squid, shrimp and slivers of bright red -- yes, annatto-dyed -- barbecued pork, the latter usually consumed without any acknowledgement of its porcine nature.

So why are Jews so attracted to Chinese food? It might boil down to cultural similarities between the two communities, writer David Sax argued in Toronto Life magazine late last year.

For starters, Jews and Chinese are alike in that they rarely mix meat with dairy when they prepare food.

Both communities also share a similar immigration experience in Canada: Quotas, prejudice and persecution early on, followed by a remarkable period of successful integration that resulted from shared cultural emphases on scholarship and academic achievement.

But the shared-experience phenomenon doesn't really explain the magnetic effect of Chinese food on The Chosen. As Sax suggests, it's probably more a matter of plausible deniability, in that non-kosher substances like shrimp, pork and crab may often be diced down into oblivion in Chinese dishes, allowing the semi-observant and the intellectually dishonest to chow down without Jewish guilt.

Personally, I've never experienced this. Growing up in a very secular household, there was never any remorse associated with eating any form of food.

But I do experience an entirely different form of emotion when I consume either Chinese or Jewish food these days: Nostalgia, and a sense of loss.

Unlike in Toronto, where the Chinese community is booming and Jews still number in excess of 100,000, Winnipeg's Chinese and Jewish communities have been hit hard by the Manitoba brain drain.

This is not just a matter of young, university-educated people of both ethnic groups leaving the city for brighter economic pastures. It's also a culinary disaster: The North End lost its last authentic Jewish deli when Simon's closed five years ago, and the continent-wide boom in Taiwanese noodle joints and Hong Kong-style seafood restaurants has largely bypassed this city.

This, in turn, had led me to devise a theory I call "restaurant determinism," which holds that the vibrancy of a local ethnic group can be measured in terms of the number of restaurants serving the authentic cuisine of that particular group.

To test this theory, you only need to witness the proliferation of Vietnamese noodle joints and Filipino comfort food parlours in Winnipeg. And trust me, I love my banh mi and lumpia as much as I love Szechuan eggplant hotpot and chopped liver on rye bread.

But when I was sick and starving, it was the pan-fried dumpling that I craved. As a Jew, I know where my loyalties lie -- with the other Chosen people, who've perfected the art of cooking pork.

bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 10, 2007 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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