Culture, Ethnicty, Food Issues and Interacial/Interfaith Marriage

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This topic has 4 voices, contains 9 replies, and was last updated by  Debbie B. 1234 days ago.

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June 1, 2011 at 3:58 pm #5825

Cynthia C.M.

How do Chinese/Jewish marriages kosher food issues?  Default meat in most Chinese (especially Cantonese) dishes is pork.  Shellfish is a major part of a fancy Chinese dinner (I recently went to one where there were four courses of lobster).  My husband and I pretty much eat most dishes (he does not keep kosher), but what about other people?  I realize that a typical Chinese restaurant is NOT kosher, but how do people who are “semi-kosher” (i.e. they buy non-kosher meat, but otherwise abstain from shellfish, pork, mix meat with dairy, etc…) handle something like this?    For those of Chinese descent who have converted and are keeping kosher (or semi-kosher), how have your family members reacted?

June 1, 2011 at 4:33 pm #5826

Benjamin Maron

Good question! The answer really depends on how you are keeping “semi-kosher” (to borrow your term).

Some people just ask plenty of questions when eating out in a restaurant (Chinese or otherwise) to make sure the food they want to order doesn’t contain ingredients they’re trying to avoid. Generally, this is easy enough to do at a Chinese restaurant – but dim sum can get a little trickier. (I’ve heard plenty of stories of people asking if there’s pork, shrimp, meat, in the dumplings, asking that it’s vegetarian, then biting into meat or shellfish.)

An easier option, depending on where you live, would be to find a Buddhist restaurant. These still serve Chinese dishes, often cooked more “traditionally” than a typical American Chinese restaurant, but do not serve any meat, seafood, or fish, so it’s less of a worry.

When cooking at home, one can use tofu, gluten, or other meat-substitutes (including fake meat (even fake shrimp!) for most Chinese dishes.

June 1, 2011 at 6:19 pm #5827

Debbie B.

I’m ethnically Chinese (although American-born), a convert to Judaism, and I keep kosher. My husband is Jewish and we converted our children and raised them as Jews before I converted myself. My parents got used to the fact that none of my family (including me, even many years before I converted) would eat pork or shellfish although we ate non-kosher chicken and beef. We tried not to make a big deal of it. Luckily, there are lots of vegetarian Chinese dishes. Dim sum can indeed be trickier. There were very few options for me the last time I went to a restaurant for dim sum. We ended up ordering a steamed fish to provide something more substantial.

At this point, I keep more strictly kosher than the rest of my family: I no longer eat non-rabbinically supervised meat, but I am still willing to eat vegetarian food cooked at a non-kosher restaurant. I do need to ask questions about ingredients though to avoid having minor components of dishes be treif such as oyster sauce or chicken broth. However, a kosher Chinese meal that I particularly enjoyed on a recent visit to San Francisco was at “Shangri-La” a rabbinically supervised vegetarian Chinese restaurant!

I did not stop eating non-kosher beef and chicken when served it outside my home until after I formally converted, in part to avoid some aspects of this issue. Initially, my mother thought that I had just become a vegetarian. And truthfully, I think it may bother her that I won’t eat a number of traditional Chinese foods that I used to love for religious reasons, particularly since I was the only kid in the family who would eat any of the weird Chinese foods. But she has gone out of her way to accommodate my dietary needs and I appreciate that.

I’ve found that one can accidentally be served meat at lots of different kinds restaurant. I was once served a dish at a Mexican restaurant that the waiter assured me was “vegetarian”, but had bacon bits in it! Since I took a small bite before noticing the suspicious ingredients, I had to remind myself that I grew up eating pork and that God would certainly understand that it was a mistake. On the other hand, I know someone who had to dash to the restroom to throw up in a similar circumstance! Ironically, my husband had over-ruled my my concerns about going to that restaurant even though in addition to me, one of the people we were eating with was a vegetarian.

June 1, 2011 at 8:34 pm #5828

Cynthia C.M.

Debbie:

What happens when you attend a multi-course Chinese banquet?  It’s next to impossible to avoid meat when everyone else at the table is eating it. 

C

June 2, 2011 at 5:04 pm #5829

Debbie B.

Multi-course is actually better, because it is not difficult for at least one or two dishes out of more than a dozen to be vegetarian or fish that I can eat. Since starting to keep more strictly kosher, I have not had the experience of attending a Chinese banquet that was not hosted by family members who made sure there were at least a couple of dishes that I could eat. My family has always been big on Chinese vegetables, so I seem to remember that they typically ordered at least one vegetarian dish for a big family meal even before it mattered to anyone. And plain white rice is certainly fine.

Because I do eat food cooked at non-kosher restaurants, my needs are no more difficult than for a vegetarian—and people are more used to vegetarians these days too. My husband says that the good thing about working in IT where so many workers are Indian, is that it has made it pretty routine for there to be a vegetarian option at conferences or other meetings.

It is actually harder at big family gatherings such as the Christmas meal hosted by my cousin with a more fixed menu. I have made sure to bring hearty appetizers (my husband’s hand-rolled sushi and snap peas shaped into a wreath with a red pepper bow) and a side dish, and I fill up on the appetizers like the cheese plate before the meal. The bonus is that I have room for the rich dairy desserts that I am usually too full for :)

June 7, 2011 at 1:18 pm #5841

Cynthia C.M.

But Debbie, don’t people who don’t know you stare if you abstain from most of the dishes?  Multi-course portions aren’t that big, after all.  In a typical banquet, there really are only three dishes that are either vegetarian or fish-related (the vegetable count around here (Toronto – our Chinese food is very much influenced by Hong Kong immigration on the 80s and early 90s.  These people go visit the old country often, so the food is pretty on par with what they have there) is a bit better now than it was 20 years ago, but outside of the actual veggie course, vegetables tend to be mixed with meat.  I can only think of that course, the fish course and PERHAPS the starch course at the end.  Dessert is veg, usually (again, around here, anyway)) and if the portions are served by staff, is relatively small.  How do you manage that?

July 6, 2011 at 7:50 pm #5937

K-Lee

Hello – I am interested in how you explain to your children about why some members of your family can eat foods that they don’t. My daughter is nearly 4 years old and yesterday she asked for the first time about why her father was eating bacon while we were out at a restaurant. It is never an issue as home as we do not have non kosher meat at home, but my non-Jewish husband & I have always agreed that he should eat whatever he likes when we are not at home. I have until now explained to my daughter how other people who are not Jewish eat foods that we do not – she has accepted that easily but now she has noticed that her Daddy is eating those foods and seems confused. I would love to hear others experiences with explaingin interfaith families to young children.

July 10, 2011 at 3:51 am #5944

Debbie B.

@Cynthia,

When I eat at a Chinese banquet, I do hope that the few dishes I can eat come out early or it is more awkward not to eat anything but rice for awhile. But my family is accommodating enough to make sure there are a few things I can eat. The dishes are served “family style”, so it is easy to simply take multiple helpings of the vegetarian dishes. I certainly don’t leave hungry. It would be more restrictive if I was vegetarian, or even vegan, since it is usually possible to have a fish dish I can eat as well. To tell you the truth, when I started to keep strictly kosher one of my own justifications to myself was that I had felt since I was a teenager that for various reasons perhaps I ought to be a vegetarian. And I have many vegetarian friends, so that dietary restriction seems quite normal to me. My sponsoring rabbi has been a vegetarian for over 20 years.

I remember fondly one of the best meals I ever had was when I was a college student visiting my maternal grandparents in NYC during a school break and my grandmother took me to a Buddhist temple for a magnificent vegetarian banquet of over a dozen dishes. My grandmother had attended a Christian missionary school in China (because her grandfather had been an ambassador to Europe and declared that all his children and grandchildren, including the girls, should be educated in English), but in her later years became involved in Buddhism. She was no longer alive when I finally converted, but I’m sure that she would have understood my dietary restrictions as  “eating like a Buddhist” (plus I also eat fish) at Chinese restaurants.

@K-Lee,

It was easier for my children because I stopped eating pork and shellfish when they were born. So their relatives who ate non-kosher food were not Jewish and also were not in their immediate family. Our immediate family was only technically “interfaith” because our household was totally Jewish in observance and I lived “Jewishly” too (more observantly than my Reform Jewish friends, in fact)—even if I did not convert until years after they were born.

But going back to the vegetarian analogy, I know several families in which one parent is a vegetarian and the other isn’t and the kids may or may not be. It may be easier when everyone in the family is the “same’ for certain things like religion, but perhaps it is not such a bad lesson for kids in “mixed” families to learn early not to expect everyone to be the same as they are. In your case, I would just explain that Daddy isn’t Jewish, and non-Jews do not have the same restrictions on what they can eat. However, you and your child are Jewish, so you do not eat pork.

July 11, 2011 at 8:09 pm #5955

Cynthia C.M.

Debbie:

Thanks for the info.  However, this probably won’t help if the practice at the restaurant is to plate into portions after presenting to the guests (seems to be common in the higher end/wannabe higher end Chinese restaurants, at least here in Toronto).  Not sure if you’ve come across this, though.

July 12, 2011 at 4:41 pm #5962

Debbie B.

@Cynthia,

I haven’t had to deal with that style of serving. In that case, I’d probably have to actually eat something different. But then again, so would my relatives who have severe food allergies or are vegetarian. So chances are, that style of Chinese banquet would not be chosen.

I do know a Mexican-American convert whose sponsoring rabbi said that it was permissible for her to even eat pork that was served by her mother on the grounds of honoring ones parents. I found that very surprising given that it was a Conservative rabbi.

Kashrut is very important to me however. I like that every single day it affirms my choice to become Jewish and thereby to take on that mitzvah. Feeling the need to keep kosher, but feeling that I couldn’t ask for accommodations by others on that account if I wasn’t Jewish was one of the final motivators for me to formally convert. I can compromise by eating vegetarian at a non-kosher restaurant or home, but I can’t eat certain things even if it might be uncomfortable for social reasons.

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