A 3-page Paper about ethnic food


© Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2010 DOI: 10.1163/179325410X491473 Also available online – brill.nl/jco

Journal of Chinese Overseas 6 (2010) 80-101 brill.nl/jco

Kung Pao Kosher: Jewish Americans and Chinese Restaurants in New York1

Haiming Liu

Abstract Since c.1900, eating Chinese food has become a weekly routine, a Christmas tradition, and a childhood memory for many Jewish American families. In their adaptation to American society, Jewish Americans made eating Chinese part of their American identity. Th e evolution and change in Chinese food and Jewish eating habits took place almost simultaneously. While Chinese immigrants invented chopsuey and other popular Americanized Chinese dishes, Jewish residential proximity to New York Chinatown allowed many Jewish immigrants and their fami- lies to frequent Chinese restaurants and become familiar with Chinese food. Based on a review of articles published in newspapers and popular journals in New York and scholarly writings on food history, this article explains how and why Jewish customers were attracted to Chinese food, and describes the dynamic interaction between the two cultures in an attempt to addresses the complexity of American ethnic identity.

An Unlikely Ethnic Romance

Chinese cuisine has a unique place in the Jewish American experience. Like many Americans, early Jewish immigrants liked Chinese food for its tastiness and cheap price. But unlike most American customers, they found a deep meaning in eating Chinese food and incorporated it into their own culture. Jewish acceptance and interest in Chinese food seems like an improbable eth- nic romance for the Jewish culinary tradition which is distinctly diff erent from that of the Chinese. In their pioneering research on the Jewish fondness for

Haiming Liu is Professor of Asian American Studies at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. His email address is [email protected]

1 I want to thank Zuoyue Wang, my colleague at Cal Poly Pomona, the two anonymous reviewers for JCO, and Professor Tan Chee Beng, Editor of JCO, for their careful and valuable comments on this article. I also want to thank the Chiang Ching Kuo Foundation in New York for a fellowship for my research on Chinese medical culture. Th ough not directly supporting this project, the fellowship has greatly encouraged me in my research on China and Chinese Ameri- cans in general. Food has become an increasingly notable topic in overseas Chinese studies.

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Chinese food, Gaye Tuchman and Harry G. Levine (1997) wrote that “of all the peoples whom immigrant Jews and their children met, of all the foods they encountered in America, the Chinese were the most foreign, the most ‘un-Jewish.’ Yet Jews defi ned this particular foreignness not as forbidding but as appealing, attractive, and desirable. Th ey viewed Chinese restaurants and food as exotic and cosmopolitan and therefore as good. Indeed, many Jews saw eating in Chinese restaurants as an antidote for Jewish parochialism, for the exclusive and overweening emphasis on the culture of the Jews as it had been.”2

Since 1900 Jewish immigrants and their children have become the most enthusiastic American patrons of Chinese restaurants in New York. For many Jewish American families, eating Chinese food is a weekly routine, a Christ- mas tradition, and a childhood memory that has spanned over several decades and multiple generations. It has become an integral part of their American experience. Embedded in the Jewish aff ection for Chinese food is the story of how two diff erent ethnic immigrant groups discovered and embraced each other’s culture in their adaptations to American society.

Th e change and evolution of Chinese food and that of Jewish eating habit were taking place almost simultaneously. As chopsuey houses carved a niche in the American restaurant market and became popular ethnic eating places for New Yorkers in the 1890s and 1900s, eating out in Chinese restaurants (and of course in other ethnic restaurants as well) became trendy among many Jew- ish immigrants. In their adaptation to American society, Jewish immigrants made eating Chinese part of their American identity. In this relationship, the signifi cance of Chinese food went beyond sustenance as it refl ected both groups’ cultural sensibilities and American experiences.

Th e Historical Context

Chinese immigrants entered the United States in the 1840s during the Gold Rush in California. When chopsuey houses in New York began to thrive and attract Jewish clients in the 1900s, the Chinese community had already been in the United States for half a century. However, the Chinese community was faced with serious racial discrimination during this period. Beginning in the 1880s, the United States passed a series of exclusion laws targeting the Chi- nese. Th e fi rst Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 barred the entry of Chinese

2 Th e article is also available at http://dragon.soc.qc.cuny.edu/Staff /levine/SAFE-TREYF.pdf, p. 9. Accessed on Sept. 7, 2009.

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labor immigrants and their family members, and denied them the right of naturalization. Th e law was extended in 1892 for ten years and required that Chinese immigrants apply for a special identifi cation document and carry it wherever they went. Th e law was renewed again in 1902 and applied to all US territories. Two years later, the United States made the exclusion of Chinese permanent. Under the shadow of these exclusion laws, the Chinese commu- nity in America was shrinking rapidly. As many immigrants returned to China, the Chinese population in America declined from over 100,000 in 1882 to 85,000 in 1920 (Hing 1993: 47).

Rampant racial riots and bullying also drove most Chinese immigrants into metropolitan cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York where there were Chinatowns. Living under the shadow of racism, more and more Chinese immigrants took up menial service jobs in laundry stores and restaurants. Such occupations did not put them in direct competition with white Americans and were therefore tolerated and even encouraged in Ameri- can society. By the 1890s, the Chinese population in the city of New York had reached 13,000. While about 4,000 lived in Chinatown, the rest were scat- tered doing mostly laundry work in the vicinity of New York City (Beck 1898: 12, 58). Before 1900, Chinese laundry stores were far more numerous than Chinese restaurants in New York and it was a similar situation in other metro- politan American cities though both were often considered as constituting the cornerstone business for the Chinese community during the Chinese Exclu- sion era. After Li Hongzhang, an eminent government offi cial, visited the United States in 1896, Chinese immigrants in New York created the myth that Li’s favorite food in America was a dish called “chopsuey” in Chinatown. Soon New York saw a rapid growth of chopsuey houses throughout the city; its popularity spread to other metropolitan cities as well.3

Th e popularity of chopsuey houses in the 1900s marked an era in which restaurant operation became another major menial service occupation for the Chinese. When Liang Qichao, a leading Chinese intellectual, visited the United States in 1903, he observed that there were 300 to 400 chopsuey houses in New York alone (Liang 1981: 52). Th ough Liang’s estimate may not be accurate, New York City at that time did see an explosive growth in chopsuey houses. A New York Times article in 1900 remarked that “Judging from the outbreak of Chinese restaurants all over town, the city has gone

3 For the history of chopsuey houses in New York City, see Haiming Liu, “Chop Suey as an Imagined Authentic Chinese Food: Chinese Restaurant Business and its Culinary Identity in the United States,” Th e Journal of Transnational American Studies, Vol. 1, Issue 1, Article 12, 2009. (http://repositories.cdlib.org/acgcc/jtas)

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“chopsuey” mad.”4 In 1901, a returning American diplomat from China also observed: “Th ere is a growing taste on the part of New Yorkers for Chinese dishes. Chinese restaurants have sprung up all over the city, and they are well patronized, especially at night. Th e dish mostly in demand is chow chopsuey, a most delicious concoction, if properly prepared.”5

Coincidentally, this was also the same period when Jewish immigrants began to arrive in the United States in large numbers. Coming from Russia, Poland, Romania, Hungary, and other European countries, most of them landed in New York City. Immigration historian Roger Daniels pointed out that the number of Eastern European Jews had increased dramatically during the 19th century, from perhaps 1.5 million to nearly seven million and many of them settled in New York and other cities in the Northeast and Midwest. In the 1920s, they made up about a quarter of New York’s population (Daniels 1990: 223-26). While many European immigrants were pushed away from their home countries by hunger, poverty and unemployment, Jews were often driven away by anti-Semitism in Europe. Some political activists in the Chi- nese community came to learn about the Jewish people’s diffi cult circumstance in their home countries. In 1905, the New York Times reported: “Under the auspices of the Chinese Empire Reform Association, a company of some forty Chinese presented ‘King David’ at Miner’s Bowery Th eatre last night for the benefi t of the suff ering Jews in Russia. Nearly $1,000 was realized.”6 Th e Chi- nese Empire Reform Association (Baohuang Hui) was a political organization that tried to reform the Chinese political system without overthrowing the Manchu Emperor. Its aborted reform in 1898 made its leaders like Kang You- wei and Liang Qichao targets of political persecution by the conservative Qing government. As exiles from their home country, the reformists developed a sympathetic attitude toward those Jewish people who were forced out of their country due to religious prejudice. According to the New York Times report, the performance was very successful and drew so many people to the Broad- way theater that the police were called in to maintain order.

Jewish immigrants arrived in an era when the United States was going through rapid urbanization. At the turn of the century, New York City’s popu- lation grew very fast owing to an immigration boom and bustling manu- facturing and commercial activities. As New York was growing into a metropolitan city, eating out became trendy, especially during the decades of

4 “Heard About Town.” New York Times, Jan. 29,1900. 5 “How To Make Chop Suey.” New York Times, Nov. 3, 1901. 6 “Chinese Play ‘King David.’ Oriental Actors Perform for the Benefi t of Jews in Russia.” New

York Times, Dec. 4, 1904.

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the 1910s and 1920s. Bank clerks, law fi rm associates, department store sales- men and women employees, female offi ce secretaries and factory workers were the typical lunch-time patrons of various American and ethnic restaurants on week days. Families, couples, or groups of friends became dinner customers on Friday nights and weekends. Chopsuey houses attracted many New Yorkers and their out-of-town guests because of their competitive edge in service, price and food innovation.

Newly arrived Jewish immigrants became part of this trend and began to patronize Chinese restaurants. By 1903, the Jewish Daily Forward, a Yiddish newspaper founded by Jewish immigrant scholar Abraham Cahan in 1897, coined the new Yiddism: oyesessen, or eating out. “Oyesessen,” the paper reported, “is spreading every day, especially in New York” (Miller 2006: 437). With their tasty food and low prices, Chinese restaurants were aff ordable eat- eries and popular with all social classes and ethnic groups. When eating out, many Jewish immigrants chose Chinese restaurants because they were in the neighborhood and chopsuey was a popular food in New York. However, some Jewish customers would pick up racial slurs against the Chinese. Th ey would say, “let us go to eat at Chink” or “let us go for Chinks” without knowing that “Chink” was a derogatory word. Sometimes they thought “Chink” referred to Chinese food, not the people” (Tuchman and Levine 1997: 8; http://www. hereinstead.com/SAFE-TREYF.pdf). In general, Jewish Americans did not have prejudice against the Chinese.

As customers of Chinese restaurants, Jewish immigrants found certain sim- ilarities between Chinese food and their own food. For example, wonton, a favorite dish of many Jewish patrons, looked like “kreplach” in appearance and fl avor. Kreplach were triangular or square dumplings made of fl our with fi ll- ings of chopped meat, mashed potatoes, or other ingredients usually boiled in chicken soup. It was a popular East European Jewish delicacy and often served as a pre-fast meal before Yom Kippur, and on Rosh Hashana (Hoshana Raba). Wontons were Chinese miniature dumplings fi lled with fi nely minced pork mixed with green onions, ginger and other ingredients and sauces boiled in chicken soup. Sometimes Cantonese immigrants also deep-fried them and served the dish as a snack. Chinese meatballs reminded Jewish immigrants of their Matzo ball soup. Cantonese noodle, known as lo mein, was similar to luckshen, or Jewish noodles. Donald Siegel, a science professor at Syracuse University and a longtime fan of Chinese cuisine, authored a book entitled From Lokshen to Lo Mein: Th e Jewish Love Aff air With Chinese Food (2005).

When Jewish immigrants landed in New York, many lived on the Lower East Side just neighboring Chinatown. By 1910, more than 500,000 Jews had been “wedged into tenements in the 1.5 square miles of New York’s Lower

Haiming Liu / Journal of Chinese Overseas 6 (2010) 80-101 85

East Side” (Daniels 1990: 226). On August 13, 1925, New York Times carried a touching story about the friendship between John, a Chinese chopsuey house waiter, and Norton Rubin, a three-and-a-half-year-old Jewish kid. “Nobody knew John’s last name, nobody cared,” the report wrote. In those decades, Chinese men were always called “John,” and Chinese women, “Mary.” “Th e ways of the people to the east of the Bowery have encroached on China- town, and little Norton was one of those who toddled into a neighborhood that was alien but fascinating, with all the glamour of the unknown.”7

Under the Chinese exclusion laws, Chinatown was declining while the Jew- ish and other immigrant populations were growing. Many Chinese immi- grants had left their wives and children behind in China. Family life was rare in Chinatown. Little Norton probably reminded John of his own family or children as he adored the kid and often bought him ice cream cones or lolli- pops. He sometimes waited at the Solomon Rubin store in the afternoon until the kid appeared and “ran into the arms of his Chinese admirer.” Th e little visitor brought John pleasant diversion from his monotonous job of taking chopsuey orders. As a result of this friendship, Norton Rubin’s “speech became a polygot of Chinese, Jewish, and English.” “Th e little boy came to know the Chinese of the section as well as he did his own people.” One night, when the two disappeared for several hours, Rubin’s family became concerned and alerted the police. After some search, offi cers found the two friends joyously laughing while watching a comedy in the Th ailia Th eatre. At the insistence of Norton who wanted something more than ice cream that day, John had taken him to a movie for a special treat.8 When placed into a larger historical con- text, the friendship between this Chinese waiter and Jewish kid was made possible by the geographical proximity between Chinese and Jewish immi- grant communities in New York City. At the turn of the last century, many Jewish immigrant families lived just next door to Chinatown and often frequented Chinese restaurants.

Chow Mein for Christmas

On Christmas day, 1935, in the depth of the Great Depression, Eng Shee Chuck, a Chinese restaurant owner, summoned many of his relatives and pre- pared 80 chow mein dinners and 80 toys tied with red ribbons to be delivered

7 “Child Disappears With His Chinese Friend; Police Find Th em Happy in a Movie Th eatre.” New York Times, Aug. 13, 1925.

8 Ibid.

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to the orphans at the Jewish Children’s Home in Newark. As the steaming chow mein and toys, instead of the regular dinners, were passed to the eager youngsters, the children sang a song to express their gratitude. In return, Chuck told the youngsters 1,000-year-old Chinese fairy tales. “It was a won- derful Christmas,” he said. Th e New York Times carried this touching story with the following comment: “Truly, the spirit of Christmas whispered to Eng Shee Chuck as he sat in his Chinese restaurant today. It told a story of peace on earth and of good-will transcending race, creed and religion.”9 In addition to imparting to the readers the charitable spirit of Eng Shee Chuck, the story also shows how eating Chinese on Christmas day had already become popular with Jewish Americans by the 1930s.

Chow mein was in fact suited to the Jewish sentiment during Christmas culturally. Neither Chinese nor Jewish Americans celebrated Christmas for religious or cultural reasons though it was the biggest public holiday season in America. At the Jewish Children’s Home chow mein was an acceptable replace- ment for the regular dinner as Jewish people did not have a special Christmas meal. When the Jewish orphans sang, it was obviously not Jingle Bell. In return, Chuck told them Chinese fairy tales that were a thousand years old. Chuck’s visit to the Jewish Children’s Home was an example of a Chinese restaurant owner’s awareness of the Jewish fondness for Chinese food. It was also an illustration of two peoples discovering each other’s culture. Both groups perceived America, not as a melting pot, but rather a meeting ground where they viewed one another simultaneously as Americans and foreigners, and affi rmed their traditional values while embracing new ones.

During the exclusion era, single male Chinese immigrants often operated their business seven days a week and twelve hours a day. Chinese waiters and cooks — some were co-owners of the restaurants — did not stop work during the Christmas season although they might take turns to have a couple of days off during the Chinese Lunar New Year. Unlike most of their American coun- terparts, Chinese restaurants remained open on Christmas day. In New York City, Jewish families were often their main customers on that day while most American families ate their Christmas dinner at home. Jewish Americans did not take Christmas as a religious holiday and were often opposed to the reli- gious aspect of Christmas celebrations in American society. Although they had no wish to prepare and eat a Christmas dinner, it was almost impossible not to have any social activities or gathering during this holiday season especially for the children. Coincidentally Chinese restaurants were open on Christmas day

9 “Yule Stirs Chinese to Aid Jewish Home: Eng Shee Chuck Gives Chow Mein Dinners and Tells Fairy Stories to Children.” New York Times, Dec. 26, 1935.

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and provided non-Christian food. Th e two groups were thus brought together by the business need of the Chinese restaurant and the socio-cultural need of the Jewish people. While the Chinese found Jewish immigrants their most loyal patrons of their business over Christmas, Jewish Americans made eating Chinese their Christmas tradition.

Eating their family dinner at Chinese restaurants meant that Jewish Ameri- cans could not totally ignore the secular and commercial part of the Christmas celebrations. It was an occasion for a family gathering where parents and chil- dren or even extended family members got together and exchanged gifts. Houses and neighborhoods were decorated; department stores promoted their biggest holiday sales; and some churches off ered open-house musical performances. Children in America were more excited about Christmas than any other holidays. In Jewish culture, major religious holidays included Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah, and Passover. But they were not secular festivals where children could have much fun. To compete with Christmas, some Jewish families turned to Hanukah, an eight-day Jewish festival known as the Festival of Lights, as an alternative and gave gifts to the children. Hanukah could take place from late November to late December based on the Hebrew calendar. Th ough a minor religious holiday, three surveys conducted among Jewish people in 1957-58, 1962 and 1981 indicated that Hanukah had become the most celebrated ethnic holiday as an alternative to Christmas (Pleck 2000: 97-98).

Jewish Americans’ attitude toward Christmas was one of rejection, resis- tance, acceptance and accommodation (Sarna 1990: 172-74). According to a national survey in 1984, only about 12 percent of Jewish American house- holds purchased a Christmas tree to celebrate this holiday (Pleck 2000: 70). Even more recently, the Christmas season could be a boring week for many Jewish Americans. On Christmas Eve, 1994, the New York Times, for example, carried an article about the dilemma of Jewish Americans in the San Francisco Bay area. It stated: “Th ey can’t watch television, because it is fi lled with Christ- mas specials. Th ey can’t go shopping, because everything is closed. Th ey can’t visit their Christian friends, who are sitting with their nearest and dearest around Christmas trees. Th ey can’t go to church and, at least in many parts of the country, it’s too cold to go outside. . . .”10

Traditionally Jewish Americans took refuge in movie theaters or better still in Chinese restaurants where family dinners or reunion with friends took place. For generations, Chinese food was their Christmas dinner. Eating at a

10 David Margolick, “Jewish Comics Make It a Not So Silent Night.” New York Times, Dec. 24, 1994.

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Chinese restaurant could be a warm family reunion or a fun social gathering. But it was not a celebration of the religious aspect of Christmas day. For many Jewish families, it became a popular thing to do during this most important American holiday. Th e busiest Chinese restaurants on Christmas day were always those located in or close to Jewish American communities. In 2003 a New York Times article entitled “For Some, Christmas Was Very Moo Shu,” reported that Christmas was usually the busiest day for Shu Lee West and its adjoining Shun Lee Café on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in New York City. From noon until 11 p.m., they would receive 900 orders for dinner and make 800 deliveries.11 Most of the patrons were Jewish for whom it had become a tradition to have a family dinner in a Chinese restaurant and watch a movie on Christmas day.

On November 24, 2006, a journalist with Baltimore Jewish Times wanted to fi nd out if it was a stereotype that most Jewish families dined at Chinese res- taurants and watched movies on Christmas day. After interviewing a number of local Jewish residents, the journalist concluded that it was. “Christmas Day is the perfect time to bond with friends and family over a good Chinese meal and the latest holiday blockbuster. So this year on Christmas Day, when you arrive at your favorite Chinese restaurant, take time to embrace your part in this unique Jewish tradition.”12

As loyal customers of Chinese restaurants for generations, Jewish Ameri- cans seemed to have developed their own preference and taste when eating Chinese food. Chow mein was obviously a favorite food item for many Jewish kids as Chuck selected it for the Christmas dinner. Roger Nash, former Presi- dent of the League of Canadian Poets, once published his collection of poems entitled In the Kosher Chow Mein Restaurant (1996) which won the Canadian Jewish Book Award for Poetry for 1997. Chow mein, Chopsuey, Kung Pao Chicken, or Moo Shu Pork were some of the most popular dishes with the Jewish Americans. Unlike many American kids who would ask for chicken soup noodle when they were sick, Jewish kids wanted Chinese meals for com- fort food. Jewish humorist Molly Katz once wrote: “Never mind chicken soup; when Jews need comfort, solace or medicinal nourishment, we dive for Moo Shu Pork” (Miller 2006: 450).13

11 Alex Witchel, “For Some, It Was a Very Moo Shu Christmas.” New York Times, Dec. 17, 2003.

12 Kimberly Trompeter, “Lo Mein and A Movie.” Baltimore Jewish Times. Baltimore: Nov. 24, 2006.

13 Miller, 450. See also Molly Katz, Jewish as a Second Language (New York: Workman, 1991), p. 67.

Haiming Liu / Journal of Chinese Overseas 6 (2010) 80-101 89

Unlike other American customers, Jewish Americans became fans of Chi- nese cuisine as a group. Th eir acceptance of Chinese food was not an inciden- tal curiosity about an exotic cuisine on the part of some individual Jewish family, it was rather a collective fondness of almost the entire Jewish commu- nity in New York City. Th at was how eating Chinese became a tradition which was passed from one generation to another. In her book on Chinese restau- rants published in 2008, New York Times journalist Jennifer Lee (2008: 96) wrote: “Th e average American Reform Jew is more likely to know how to use chopsticks than how to write the Hebrew alphabet. Chinese food on Christ- mas Day is as much an American Jewish ritual as the Seder on Passover (maybe even more so, once you take into account the non-observant Jews). When my friend Orli Bahcall was growing up, her family even had take-out Chinese food for family Shabbat dinner.” Th e Bahcall family was probably an extreme case but it indicated how far Chinese food had become part of the Jewish American culture.

Today third-generation Jewish Americans want to go beyond merely eating Chinese over Christmas. A 1994 New York Times article further reported that “this Christmas Eve 800 Jews in the Bay Area will do even better. Half of them would dine on an eight-course Chinese meal, complete with Yiddish fortune cookies. Th en all of them would indulge in a six-course feast of Jewish humor. Th e show was called ‘Kung Pao Kosher Comedy,’ but the Kosher referred to the jokes, not the cuisine.”14 Kung Pao chicken seemed to have become food for the brain when those Jewish Americans decided to found a comedy club for their Christmas occasion, and a Chinese dinner party had spawned an ethnic cultural show. When a show was named Kung Pao Kosher Comedy, it indicated that Chinese food had exerted more than just a dietary infl uence on Jewish Americans. As their designated Christmas dinner for generations, Chinese food became an expressive form of their American identity. As food historian Anna Miller has pointed out, eating Chinese “has become a meaningful symbol of American Judaism, with all its quirks and ceremonial selectivity. For in eating Chinese, the Jews found a modern means of express- ing their traditional cultural values. Th e savoring of Chinese food is now a ritualized celebration of immigration, education, family, community, and continuity” (Miller 2006: 458).

14 David Margolick, “Jewish Comics Make It a Not So Silent Night.” New York Times, Dec. 24, 1994.

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Imagined Safe Treyf

Gaye Tuchman and Harry G. Levine interviewed over 100 Jewish people about their experiences with Chinese food most of whom found Chinese food to be “safe treyf.” In Jewish culture, food, especially meat, should be processed and prepared according to kashruth (dietary laws) and such food is called kosher. In 1923, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations started a pro- gram of offi cial kashruth supervision and certifi cation. In 1934, the New York State passed a Kosher Law enforced by the Bureau of Kosher Law in its Depart- ment of Agriculture. In the fi rst decades of the 20th century, there were 10,000 kosher butcher shops in the United States (Gabaccia 1998: 69-70). Food that was prepared without following kashruth was “treyf. ” Chinese food was “treyf ” but somehow appeared safe enough for Jewish people to eat. In reality, Chi- nese food was anything but kosher. Jewish dietary laws, for example, forbade the consumption of pork, shrimp or lobsters. In Chinese cooking, these were common ingredients and frequently consumed. When Chinese restaurants served mainly Chinese customers, their food was far …