Save the Deli

Deli Olympics Special: China

Ok. So we’ve all heard the classic Chinese/Deli jokes right:

“Jewish culture is 7,000 years old, and Chinese culture is 5,000 years old, so where did Jewish people eat for 2,000 years?”

Or like Jackie Mason said, “We spend our whole lives going to Chinese restaurants, but how come you never see two Chinese people asking where they can get a good piece of gefilte fish?”

And finally: A man and his wife went to a kosher delicatessen. To their surprise their waiter, who was Chinese, took their order in Yiddish. The man could hardly believe what he was hearing. On the way out his wife asked the owner of the delicatessen where in the world did they ever find a Chinese waiter who could speak Yiddish. “Ssssshhh,” said the owner, “he thinks we’re teaching him English!”

Well deli lovers, the joke’s finally on us. Because deli is slowly infiltrating China, literally pickling it from the inside out. The always entertaining Jennifer 8. Lee had a great story on her New York Times blog today about bagels in Beijing. In it, she mentions, way down in the bottom, that the woman who is making the bagels, an ex-Brooklynite named Lejen Chen, has also begun making matzo ball soup. Can deli be too far behind?

I sure hope so. In Hong Kong, which has long had a sizable Jewish community, delis have existed in the past and present. The city’s Jewish community centre has a kosher restaurant, and there’s a small deli called Archie B’s, which imports meats and breads from New York. Time magazine wrote up Archie B’s in 2003, and here’s what they had to say:

If the thought of slinging sandwiches and bagels in Hong Kong seems strange, consider the chef doing the slinging. Adam Levin, who co-owns the shop with his wife, Tammy….found an even bigger craving lurking in Hong Kong expat stomachs: deli food. “We found this craziness, this fervor for deli,” says Levin….And expats know that when it comes to those desperately missed foods, there’s no place like home. So, to win over the die-hard New Yorkers with his deli, Levin says he knew only the real stuff would do. “My suppliers tell me I can get cheap pastrami from Australia,” he laughs. “Right.” Instead, Levin goes straight to the source. His rye bread is par-baked in New York ovens (with New York water), then finished in Hong Kong. His salami comes from the famed Katz’s delicatessen. And the bagels—which will fool even the most hardened Manhattan bagel-snob—are baked daily with dough shipped from H&H Bagels. “Why be New York-style? Why not be authentic New York?” he asks. “You can do that now. It’s a global village.”

In Hong Kong there’s also the Main Street Deli, in the luxury Langham Hotel. Opened in 2001 with the help of the 2nd Ave Deli’s owners, The Main Street Deli offers pastrami sandwiches, knishes, matzo ball soup and something called the “Rudest Wall of Chocolate Cake”. I’ve been told it’s very good, and they even have a strange “Winning Dishes” of “Gastronomic Olympics” menu, which does have a Reuben sandwich and roast kosher chicken on it.

And while the craze has quite a ways to grow in mainland China, back here in North America’s chinatown, the melding of deli and Chinese food continues. Most of the time this happens at kosher delicatessens, where people emulate legendary places like Shmulke Berstein’s-on-Essex, which dished up killer pastrami and Sino-Judaic cuisine (various fried balls of dough with chicken, which resemble nothing in China). My favorite is still New York’s Amazing 66, located at #66 Mott St, just south of Canal. I wrote a bit about it last year, and the picture above is of Helen Wong, the vivacious owner and queen of pastrami fried rice.

Let’s face it folks. Chinese and Jews are thick as thieves. We love food, especially each other’s food, and we love sharing it with big, noisy families. We can bargain with the best of them, never pay retail, and damn if our kids don’t get into med school. I can’t wait to see China embrace Jewish food with the fervor that Jews have embraced Chinese food. Mi Hao my friends mi hao!

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