Kung pao chicken has come a long way from the province of Sichuan to a starring role at a Chinese restaurant on Christmas Day during a comedy revue for Jews.
You read that correctly. Christmas – ’tis the season to be Jewish. And funny, according to comedian Lisa Geduldig, creator of San Francisco’s Kung Pao Kosher Comedy, now in its 22nd year.
Geduldig is a transplant to San Francisco from the New York town of Plainview on Long Island. She’s been a comic for 25 years. One night in October 1993, she had a gig in New England at a place called the Peking Garden Club. Except it wasn’t a club.
“It was just a restaurant,” she says. “I had the most ironic experience. I was telling Jewish jokes in a Chinese restaurant.”
This weird encounter was the origin for a Jewish-Chinese show in San Francisco. “I made a list of columns trying to come up with a name. One column was Jewish words. One column was comedy words. And another was Chinese menu words.”
Skipping the obvious Chinese menu joke about choosing one from Column A, two from Column B, she got Kung Pao Kosher Comedy, “the comedy being kosher, not the food,” she says.
Two months after her show at the Peking Garden Club, Geduldig was on stage at the Four Seas restaurant in San Francisco’s Chinatown on Christmas Eve, the first Kung Pao Kosher Comedy. It attracted mostly Jews, sold out and turned away hundreds.
If there’s an unwritten law that Jews must eat Chinese food on Christmas, there’s great adherence. Consider what U.S. Supreme Court justice Elena Kagan said when U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham asked during her confirmation hearing where she was on Christmas: “You know, like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant.”
By 1997, Kung Pao Kosher Comedy landed permanently in 1997 at New Asia restaurant, a huge indoor venue with tables of 10 as far as the eye can see. The headliner that year was Henny Youngman, king of one-liners (“Take my wife, please.”) It was Youngman’s last appearance (he died two months later at age 91). Other headliners over the years have included Shelley Berman, David Brenner, Elayne Boosler and insult queen Judy Gold.
This year, Kung Pao Kosher Comedy holds shows for three days, two a day starting today through Friday. Two Jewish comics from Canada will see what’s it’s like to be on a bill with Kung Pao’s first underage comic, a 14-year-old from New York.
When a ticket is purchased, a table is assigned with a name. Bubbeleh, Guilt, Marx Brothers, Joan Rivers, Kvetch (Yiddish for complain), Chutzpah, Chopped Liver, Farklempt …
Fortune cookies from Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory are folded and baked around Yiddish proverbs, such as, “A goat may have a beard but that doesn’t make him a rabbi.” Or, “When schnapps go in, secrets come out.”
Growing up Jewish on Long Island, Geduldig and her family ate Chinese food at least once a week year-round. “It’s not even something I thought about,” she says. “On Sunday night, that’s what everyone did. I learned to use chopsticks when I was 5. It’s haimish (Yiddish for unpretentious). It’s familiarity and comfort food.”
What is it with Jews and Chinese food?
Geduldig demurs. “Trying to explain Jews and Chinese restaurants, that’s not going to go anywhere,” she says.
It’s not an easy explanation because there are so many. Geduldig includes one explanation in her press materials: “New York Jews and Chinese Food: The Social Construction of an Ethnic Pattern” by Gaye Tuchman and Harry G. Levine, a scholarly approach to an ethnic group in America that adopted an “utterly alien practice.”
They note that Borscht Belt comedians from Buddy Hackett to Jackie Mason put jokes about Jews and Chinese restaurants in their stand-up routines, and that former New York Times food writer Mimi Sheraton wrote as fact about “the longstanding love affair Jews have had with Chinese food.”
Tuchman and Levine write that from around 1879 to 1940, the Chinese and Jews in New York City had two things in common. Both had large populations in the lower class and did not celebrate Christian holidays. This helps in some part to answer the quandary about what is there for Jews to do on Christmas. The two cultures were alone together over the food of the culture that had restaurants open on Christmas Day.
A deeper cause of the intersection is based on one aspect of kosher dietary law.
In New York, Jews discovered that the kosher law forbidding mixing meat with dairy was easy to accommodate in the dairyless Chinese cuisine. Take away pork and shellfish, and Chinese food could be fit for a bar mitzvah. Set the plate down in front of Jews from a land of frigid winters and a diet of potatoes and cabbage, and here were ginger, hot peppers, garlic, soy sauce, sesame oil – such excitement, such aroma – compared to a shtetl’s salt and pepper, the entirety of the herbs and spices of The Pale.
Tuchman and Levine say even Chinese restaurant owners agree that Jews were a reliable customer base. There’s a joke for that. A Chinese man says to a Jewish man: “If your culture is over 5,000 years old and ours is over 4,000 years old, where did your people eat for a thousand years?”
The Chinese did not develop a reverse tradition for deli food. There’s a joke for that, too. One Chinese man says to another: “The problem with Jewish food is that two weeks later, you’re hungry again.”
At Kung Pao Kosher Comedy, the menu always has soup, kung pao chicken, eggplant and a few other dishes, including shrimp, which in press materials Geduldig swears is Kosher, having been was blessed by a very reform rabbi.
The concept of safe treyf (unkosher food) aside, at Kung Pao Kosher Comedy, the star of the menu remains the namesake of the event, kung pao chicken. The dish is relatively new compared to the millennia of Chinese gastronomy. It has as many origins as the reasons Jews eat Chinese. In truth, the term “kung pao“ is a government post equal to the level of governor.
One origin story features the typical mistake-creates-legend motif – as when dumplings that stuck to the pot gave the world pot stickers. It says the governor of a Sichuan area had a chef who overcooked red chilies in hot oil, but the kung pao loved the accidental dish. Another story says the governor brought the dish with him from Guizhou, the province south of Sichuan. In still another, the chef errs but is acquitted and instead praised for mincing the chicken small because the kung pao had terrible teeth.
Geduldig likes what her research came up with, which is that kung pao means “defend the temple.” Jews can think it’s Solomon’s. Or if you like, think Kung Pao Jerry Brown. Defending the Capitol.
Editor’s note: This story was changed at 11:50 a.m. Dec. 24 to correct a quote by Lisa Geduldig.
KUNG PAO KOSHER COMEDY
What: Dinner or cocktails and a show described as a Jewish comedy on Christmas in a Chinese restaurant.
When: 5 and 8:30 p.m. today and Friday; 8:30 p.m. Thursday (a 5 p.m. Thursday dinner show is sold out)
Where: The New Asia Restaurant, 772 Pacific Ave., San Francisco
Cost: Dinner shows with seven-course banquet, $65; cocktail shows with dim sum, $45
Information: (925) 855-1986; www.koshercomedy.com
Serving Size: 1 dish
Seats per Table: 10
Amount per serving
% Daily Value
Total comedy 100%
Not a significant source of vitamin A or calcium
Percent daily values are based on a 250 chuckle diet. Yur daily values may be higher or lower depending on your comedy needs.
Elaine Corn’s kung pao chicken
This is a basic stir-fry. In addition to the base ingredients of chicken, chili pods and peanuts, this Sichuan favorite can also include water chestnuts and bamboo shoots.
Find red vinegar at Asian markets. As to the chiles, buy small dried red chiles at Asian markets or use japones chiles from Mexican markets.
This dish is supposed to be hot!
Marinade for chicken:
2 teaspoons soy sauce
2 teaspoons Shaoxing rice wine, sherry or brandy
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 chicken breasts, boned (skin optional)
1 tablespoon finely minced garlic
1 tablespoon fresh thinly slivered ginger
4 scallions, white and light green parts, in ½-inch pieces
3 tablespoons light soy sauce
2 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine, brandy or sherry
2 tablespoons red Chinese vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar
1 heaping teaspoon cornstarch
¼ cup peanut oil, for the wok
8 to 10 dried red chili pods
1 teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns
½ cup roasted peanuts
Few shakes sesame oil
Few shakes hot chili oil
Prepare marinade in a medium bowl. Cut chicken in ½-inch dice. Toss with marinade. Let stand while you prepare the rest of the ingredients. Get out a serving platter.
Prepare seasoning mixture in a small cup, and sauce mixture in another small cup. Have BOTH handy to the stove.
Heat wok over high heat until very hot. Add peanut oil and heat the oil for 30 seconds. Quickly add the chicken, stirring to break up into individual pieces. When just browned (not fully cooked), about 30 seconds, remove chicken.
Pour out all but 2 tablespoons oil from the wok. Return wok to high heat. Quickly add the chili pods and Sichuan peppercorns, stir-frying about 20 seconds. Be careful that the chilies do not burn.
Drain off excess liquid from reserved chicken. Add chicken back to the wok. Quickly add the seasoning mixture, stir-frying about 30 seconds. Add sauce mixture and stir-fry until slightly thick.
Add the peanuts, sesame oil and hot chili oil. Transfer to the platter and serve with steamed rice.