Among the many happy traditions to arise from our city’s cultural alchemy, a few of our favorites include those that cheerfully appropriate the religious holidays of others to forge their own culinary customs. Gentiles have christened the Jewish High Holidays as ‘The Feast of the Immediate Seating,’ for the relative ease with which reservations can be procured at restaurants where on less holy days it can seem impossible to get a table. And Jews famously flock to Chinese restaurants on Christmas.
Noah Bernamoff grew up living the Jewish tradition of eating Chinese on Christmas. Now, at Mile End, his celebrated mecca of Montreal-style smoked meats in Boerum Hill, Noah honors that tradition by serving his own Chinese feast on Christmas eve and Christmas day.
We met up with Noah to talk about the connection between Jews and Chinese food, and to find out more about what he’s got in store for Mile End’s traditional Jewish Chinese Christmas this year.
So Noah, tell us about Christmas as a Jewish kid growing up in Montreal
As a kid, I was always bummed on Christmas because I wanted presents too. That was my big experience of Christmas as a Jewish kid. And we’d all congregate at Chinese restaurants. Every year.
I grew up in Montreal. My grandparents were snowbirds. By mid-November every year they left Montreal for South Florida with all the other Jews. A lot of our Christmas time was spent down in Florida visiting my grandparents, and we’d go out for Chinese food every Christmas.
It was that classic style of high-end Jewish-American Chinese food in the 80’s, where you had pupu platters and that kind of stuff.
I remember it – Pupu platters came on towers with those flaming sterno things, and entrees always came on these platters with silver covers that they’d dramatically remove to unveil beef with broccoli or chicken and snowpeas or whatever…
Yeah – it was this point in time in the 80’s when Chinese restaurants in the States were trying to be higher end, and were making a variety of Chinese food that they thought would to appeal to white people more than really authentic Chinese food would. There was definitely a moment of glory for that kind of thing in the 80’s.
The place we’d go in Florida was funny. They were catering almost exclusively to old people, and I just remember it being so ridiculous. The waitresses were always yelling at the customers because the customers couldn’t hear anything, and because negotiating who was ordering what was this excruciating process that took forever. I remember it vividly.
It was different in Montreal. The Chinese food we ate there was much more authentic. The Chinese restaurants we ate in there were full of Chinese people.
But eating Chinese food on Christmas didn’t resonate with me as some kind of unique cultural experience when I was a kid. It was just what we did. It made sense. The Jews don’t celebrate Christmas, nor do most Chinese. Their restaurants were open, and we wanted to eat, so it was just easy. That’s what we did.
I think Jews have always had a kind of special connection with Chinese food because it’s what I call ‘safe treif’ – it offered up an easy transgression of the laws of kosher. It’s food that’s breaded and fried and covered in sweet and salty sauce…
A lot of secular Jews back then were transitioning from an upbringing of strict adherence to Jewish law to a life much more assimilated into secular society. I think a lot of Jews had moments where they were like, “Why can’t I eat this sweet and salty fried thing? I’m not sure what it is. I’m not going to ask. I’m not going to think deeply about it. It tastes delicious. I’m just going to eat it.” The same kind of thing happens with Jews and bacon.
And I think that’s a big reason why Jews gravitated towards Chinese food in the first place. It was exotic, so it was easy not to ask, not to worry about what exactly it was, and to just eat it and enjoy it.
In my family, it wasn’t just a Christmas thing. We grew up always eating Chinese on Sunday evenings. The tradition began with my grandparents. They’d go with my father and brother every week.
My father, growing up in lower middle-class Jewish Montreal, lived near an area called Snowdon where there were all kinds of ethnic communities. There were a lot of Chinese restaurants there. When he was a teenager, he got a job at a Chinese restaurant called Yangtze, which at that time, due to its location, had a predominantly Jewish customer base. They hired him as the token white guy, to work the door and greet customers.
He worked there after school for like six years. Over time he became more curious about the food, and he began spending more and more time in the kitchen learning how to make it. So not only did we do the Sunday evening Chinese restaurant thing growing up, but a lot of the meals my father would cook at home were Chinese. That’s pretty much what he knows how to cook.
It never struck me as odd that my totally Jewish father only knew how to cook an omelette and Chinese food. He can easily steam a whole grouper with scallion and some sauce he whips up but he can’t make roast chicken. So I suppose my experience with Chinese food is a little different from most Jews’ in the sense that my father actually worked in a Chinese restaurant for years and cooked Chinese food at home, but it wasn’t something I thought about as a kid.
So tell us about the ‘Traditional Jewish Christmas’ Chinese dinner you’re doing at Mile End.
I want to serve Chinese food all the time at the restaurant and I can’t really do that, so the only obvious opportunity in the Jewish vernacular is to do Chinese on Christmas. Everyone knows the joke – it’s Chinese food and a movie for all Jews on Christmas. So that’s what we’re playing around with. We’re not even playing around with it, we’re just doing it.
It’s a day that otherwise we’d have to close. I’ve got enough Jewish guys on staff that I said to them before we decided to do it – “Are you guys up for this? I’m happy to give you the day off, but if you’d like to work, if you’re not doing anything, we could do this.”
And everyone was really excited about doing it. For us it was a no-brainer. Jews don’t do anything on Christmas. So we decided to do this.
We’re starting out with a pupu platter. Last year we did something a little more straightforward – a couple of dishes together on the table, coursed out over starters, entrees and desserts. This year we wanted to go for something a little closer to the classic Jewish-American Chinese dining experience.
The pupu platter isn’t that authentic in terms of adherence to traditional Chinese cooking. It’s more of that style of Chinese food we’d eat in Florida over Christmas – that style aimed at white people. At home in Montreal my dad would always commandeer the ordering, and it was all about getting all these different dishes, trying all these different things. In Florida with my grandparents, he didn’t have the patience to let them choose their own stuff, and figure out who’s sharing what with whom. He had this whole system for ordering.
It was easy to order the pupu platter because it was just a nibble of this, a nibble of that. Everything was segmented, ready to share, easy to share.
So we’re doing a pupu platter this year as kind of a homage to that Jewish-American Chinese food experience. We’re not trying to do authentic Chinese. We can’t do authentic Chinese. Why not do what we can do? And this is the kind of food we want to do.
And for the main course, Peking Duck?
I just love it. I love duck. The first duck I ever had wasn’t in a French restaurant or a new American restaurant, it was in a Chinese restaurant. I’ve always had a soft spot for that gamey, sweet flavor of duck.
So the first thing we do is buy actual Pekin duck. It’s a breed of duck that’s a mix of Muscovy and a duck that’s native to China. The flesh is light. It’s pretty flavorful but not too flavorful. They’re not as meaty as French ducks, like Normandy ducks.
In my mind, the traditional preparation for Peking Duck is you cure the duck, roast it, and then you finish it off by glazing the skin with super-hot oil from a wok.
We don’t have woks or a wok stove in the restaurant, which is kind of crucial for getting the oil hot enough for you to execute it that way, so we cure it, and instead of roasting it we smoke it. Instead of glazing the skin with hot oil we glaze it in a sauce and sear it. We render a little bit of the fat out and use it to crisp the skin up.
Then we chop it up with a cleaver and serve it like they would in Chinatown.
I love Chinese food. I’d like more than anything to open a Chinese restaurant.
Mile End is located at 97a Hoyt Street, between Atlantic and Pacific, in Boerum Hill.
They are serving their traditional Jewish Christmas Chinese dinner on December 24th and 25th. $50 per person. For reservations, call 646-494-9508.