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Growing up, Thomas Chen, now chef at Tuome in New York, always wondered why his parents’ Chinese restaurant was so busy on Christmas Day.
âYou always assume it’s a vacation where people stay home and cook,â he says. He then learned from his Jewish friends at school that they went out to eat in Chinese restaurants on Christmas. In fact, it’s a long-standing tradition in the Jewish community, as it’s a holiday that they usually leave work and school, but don’t celebrate. Chen could understand.
âIt’s the same for my culture, we don’t celebrate Christmas,â he says. Or if they do, it’s their way. Much like Thanksgiving, when his family serves roast duck or pig while everyone eats turkey, Christmas is simply a time to get together with family, even if you don’t celebrate the holidays like everyone else does. âIt’s a bit the same for the Jewish community,â he says of their Chinese culinary tradition.
Related Reading: The History of Hanukkah Food in America
But growing up, Chen didn’t really celebrate Christmas because, like many Chinese restaurants in the United States, his family never closed. It was this parallel that led Chinese and Jewish cultures to come together on this holiday, as the city’s Chinese restaurant was likely the only place open at Christmas, Chen says.
Chen’s parents emigrated from Hong Kong almost 40 years ago. They opened their restaurant in Westchester; there was a take out and delivery operation as well as some seating for people to sit and eat there. Growing up, Chen always helped after school, or whenever his parents needed it, both in the kitchen or out front.
âI have always enjoyed cooking, even at a young age,â he says. âIn high school, I cooked for my parents all the time. But it was just a hobby for him, he didn’t think it would ever turn into a career. He got into accounting, which he didn’t particularly like, and finally decided to quit to pursue what he really enjoyed doing.
Chen studied at the International Culinary Center and worked at reputable gourmet restaurants in New York, such as Eleven Madison Park and Jean-Georges, before opening Tuome in the East Village in 2014. âI wanted to take the flavors with it. which I grew up on and refine them using many different techniques, âhe says.
While his food in Tuome is well worth a visit, Chen shares a delicious recipe for anyone (Jewish or not) who wants to try their hand at cooking a Chinese dish at home this year instead of going out. âIt’s a fun way to turn things up while making Chinese food,â he says.
He noticed that lo mein and stir-fries were particularly popular dishes at Christmas. This home cook friendly recipe is chicken stir-fry with Szechuan chili, shiitake mushrooms and basil. Chen makes this dish a lot at home and loves it because you just have to throw everything in one pot. You can substitute the mushrooms for other vegetables, but he suggests pre-cooking them separately about three-quarters of the way through, then adding them so that everything is cooked evenly.
The stir-fry serves two, so if you’re cooking for a crowd, just double or triple the amounts. The sauce will do enough for 3 pounds of chicken; if you don’t use it all, it will make a versatile sauce for future meals of the week.
Szechuan chili stir-fry sauce
- 2 cups soy sauce (such as Kikkoman Less Sodium Soy Sauce)
- 3 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce (like Lea & Perrins)
- 1 cup packed brown sugar
- 2 tablespoons of ginger, cut into 1/2-inch slices
- 3 garlic cloves, crushed
- 1/2 cup basil
- 2 tablespoons of Szechuan pepper (like Lao Gan Ma)
- In a medium saucepan, combine soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, ginger, garlic and brown sugar. Mix well and bring the mixture to a boil.
- Once boiling, turn off the heat. Add the basil. Stir and steep the basil in the soy mixture for 30 minutes.
- After soaking, filter the mixture then add the Sichuan pepper. Reserve for the stir-fry.
Chicken with Szechuan chili, shiitake and basil
- 1 pound chicken thighs, cut into 1-inch cubes
- 2 cups shiitake mushrooms, sliced
- 1 1/3 cups garlic chives, sliced ââ1 inch
- 4 teaspoons of garlic, finely chopped
- 2/3 cup basil leaves, torn in half
- 2 tablespoons of Shao Xing wine
- 3/4 cups of sauce (see recipe above)
- 5 tablespoons of canola oil
- Heat a large wok over high heat. Once heated, add 3 tablespoons of canola oil and add the chicken. Distribute the chicken on the wok to obtain a nice searing. Do not overload the pan. SautÃ© for about 3 minutes.
- Once the chicken is seared, add another 2 tablespoons of oil and the mushrooms to the pan. SautÃ© for 1 minute until mushrooms are lightly cooked.
- Add the garlic and garlic chives to the pan. SautÃ© for 1 minute. Deglaze the pan with the Shao Xing wine.
- After deglazing (it will only take 30 seconds), add the sauce and basil. The sauce will thicken as you sautÃ© the ingredients, about 30 seconds. Mix well and turn off the heat. Serve over rice.
Header image courtesy of Noah Fecks