The Jewish Palate: The legendary Jews of Kaifeng, China

Chef Dennis Wasko explores the ancient Jewish community of Kaifeng, how they maintained their traditions and the legacy they left behind.

Kaifeng museum in China 311 (photo credit: Zvi Hellman)
Kaifeng museum in China 311
(photo credit: Zvi Hellman)
Legend holds that a Jewish community existed in the city of Kaifeng, China from the time of the Northern Song Dynasty (c. 960 – 1127 C.E.) until the late 19th century.  It is believed that the ancestors of the Kaifeng Jews migrated from somewhere in Central Asia, fleeing from the onslaught of Islam. The migrants followed the ancient Silk Road and eventually settled in the Song capital of Kaifeng. These humble migrants were warmly accepted in their new home and allowed to openly practice their faith. The Jews were allowed to build a synagogue, beit midrash, mikvah, and had their own Kosher butcher.  In the 14th century, the Ming Emperor bestowed seven unique surnames upon the Jewish clans of Kaifeng, names by which they are identifiable today.
Europeans first became aware of the Chinese Jews in 1605 when a Jew from Kaifeng came to Beijing to take a civil service exam. There the Jew encountered the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci. According to Ricci, his visitor, named Ai T’ien, claimed to be a Jew. He told Ricci that many other Jews lived in Kaifeng and that they had a beautiful synagogue and possessed many Jewish books. 
About three years after this first encounter, Ricci sent another Jesuit to Kaifeng to see if there were indeed Jews there. The Jesuit set about copying portions of the manuscripts and documents that were being used by the community. This allowed Ricci to confirm that the people were in fact practicing Judaism, though they did not use Hebrew. 
Sadly, by the time that Ricci’s envoy reached the Jews in Kaifeng, the community was already beginning to wane.  When Ricci wrote to the Head of the Synagogue to tell him that the messiah had already come, the Rabbi wrote back that the messiah wouldn’t come for another 10,000 years, and that Ricci could have the job of community leader if he would convert and stop eating pork. 
Despite their isolation from the Jewish Diaspora, the Jews of Kaifeng preserved Jewish customs and traditions for many centuries. Unfortunately, in the 17th century, assimilation began to weaken these traditions. Intermarriage between Jews and other ethnic Chinese and Chinese Minorities increased. The destruction of the Kaifeng synagogue in the 1860’s led to the community’s total demise.
Today, there are between 600 – 1,000 residents of Kaifeng who trace their lineage back to the once vibrant Jewish community. The descendants of the Kaifeng Jews are beginning to reconnect with their Jewish heritage, and some have even immigrated to Israel. This is a fascinating group whose ethnic heritage is just beginning to be explored.
There are no known records of authentic Kaifeng Jewish cuisine, but it is safe to assume that this community would have shared the culinary traditions of their neighbors, tempered by the Laws of Kashrut. To pay homage to this unique Jewish community, I offer the following recipe for traditional Chinese dumplings.
Chinese DumplingsServes 6 - 8
Dough:2 cups organic all-purpose flour1/2 teaspoon kosher salt1/2 cup warm water (about)
Filling:1 pound ground lamb shoulder or ground beef chuck2 teaspoons Asian-style chili sauce 5 scallions, chopped1/2 cup cilantro, chopped2 tablespoons ginger, grated1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt3/4 teaspoons ground black pepper
To make the dough, mix flour and salt together. Add enough water to make a firm but not dry dough. Knead until smooth. Cover and let rest for 1 hour.
While the dough is resting, make the filling. Just mix all of the ingredients together in a bowl.
Divide dough into 24 equal pieces. Roll into 4-inch circles. Place about 1 tablespoon of filling in the center of  each circle and pull up the sides until they meet at the top. Squeeze together and give a little twist. Continue procedure until all dumplings are filled. Keep finished dumplings loosely covered so they don't dry out.
To cook:These dumplings are traditionally steamed, but they are also great fried.
To steam, oil a steamer basket and arrange dumplings so they are not touching each other. Cover steamer basket. Steam over boiling water about 15 minutes. Continue cooking in batches until all dumplings have been steamed.
To fry, heat a large pot with about 3 inches of vegetable oil to 350 degrees. Fry the dumplings in batches until they are golden brown. Remove from oil and drain on paper towels.
Serve either steamed or fried dumplings with your favorite dipping sauce.