How We Cooked a Jewish-Asian Christmas
Editor's note: Serious Eats contributors Noah Arenstein and Chichi Wang spent their Christmas cooking for Woks and Lox, a Jewish-Chinese holiday dinner that brings two cultures together with the best of their culinary traditions. We asked head chef Noah, who you've met before, to tell his story of how the event came together.
Sensing an opportunity to strengthen the "undeniable bond between Jews and Chinese" during the holidays, seasoned event planners and Queens food power couple Jeff Orlick and Veronica Chan created Woks & Lox in 2011. For the first two years, the event was held on Christmas Eve at Queens Kickshaw in Astoria, with Serious Eats contributor Chichi Wang developing a Chinese-Jewish fusion menu of hearty winter classics including five-spice potato latkes and potato wonton pierogi.
I'd been to Woks & Lox both years, first as a paying guest and last year as Chichi's sous chef. This year, with Chichi in grad school and me going full-steam with my Scharf & Zoyer pop-up, I couldn't resist the opportunity to take a larger part in developing a new menu. Here's how this year's Jewish-Chinese Christmas came together.
For the third installment of Woks and Lox, Jeff and Veronica wanted to go bigger, which meant moving the event to Manhattan. They explored numerous new venues before finding a location that perfectly represented Chinatown's past and future: Nom Wah Tea Parlor, the oldest dim sum house in Chinatown.
Besides the venue, we agreed on another major change. In the spirit of Queens Kickshaw's menu, all the dishes served were vegetarian. At Nom Wah we could now serve a full meat menu, one that we decided would be "kosher-style," which is to say we'd avoid pork and shellfish and keep meat and dairy mostly separate.
Going Kosher-style was easy, but the rest of our limitations were significant. Nom Wah's kitchen was off-limits, and we had no heating elements aside from a single griddle (plugging in a second, we found, would overload the circuit breaker) and a handful of chafing dishes. Everything else was held hot in "cambros," which are large, plug-in heating boxes (graciously loaned to us by Briskettown's Dan Delaney). We set up a restaurant within a restaurant to serve our meal.
As a frequent, post-court visitor to Nom Wah (I'm a lawyer by day), I'd latched on to a handful of dishes that I was eager to riff on. One of my favorites has always been pan-fried turnip cakes with XO sauce. Since my entire reputation as a cook has been based on pan-frying kugel, this dish was a no-brainer. However, the XO had to be kosher-fied, so Chichi and I developed a vegetarian version by making it intensely mushroom-y, with mushroom bits roasted to an intense caramelization. Enter fried kugel cubes with mushroom XO sausage.
I also love Nom Wah's fried eggplant stuffed with shrimp paste. But I also love gefilte fish, which when done right is at least as good as shrimp paste, and as luck has it the good people behind Gefilteria, who make a fabulous gefilte fish, were happy to make some donations. Horseradish and gefilte fish go together like peanut butter and jelly, so for a sauce we spiked hoisin with at least four jars of horseradish and a bit of pickled chilies. Try it at your next seder.
We also served a beak-to-butt chicken fried rice, served with chicken thigh, confit gizzards, and chicken liver made like foie gras from Fleisher's Meats. We topped it all with a shower of gribenes (fried chicken skin) and dill and served it with a side of deli mustard from The Pickle Guys.
Last up was a Sephardic version Fuchsia Dunlop's Sichuan dan dan noodle recipe from her cookbook, Land of Plenty, served with a fried chickpea, lamb, mint, and pistachio topping. I'll be cooking it at future pop-ups and scarfing it down at home in the meantime.
Given our limitations, it was as fine a Jewish-Chinese Christmas as we could hope for. At the end of the night we fed over 60 people. It felt like an even larger crowd.