Egg Fu Yung or Foo Yung or however people want to spell it is considered to be a traditional Chinese food. Unfortunately, that’s not true. Like Chop Suey, it was an invention of Chinese immigrants, but in this case Egg Fu Yung was created by a Jewish immigrant who frequented Chinese restaurants in San Francisco.
I haven’t been able to discover his name, but in the process found out that in 1874 the San Francisco Call had an ad boasting Egg Fu Yung as the highlight of the menu. This is the first reference to the dish in history. In China there is a dish called Fu Yung which is similar, but not exactly the same. I remembered once someone saying that if you want the best Chinese food to ask a Jew. That started me thinking why and this led me to Egg Fu Yung being a Jewish dish.
Jewish people and Chinese people have had something in common for many years. On Sunday’s the Christians go to church and have home cooked meals. The Jews, tend to go out for Chinese food. Back in the old days you didn’t see very many Christian people of Chinese decent so they had no problem keeping their restaurants open on Sundays. Back when many Jewish people where orthodox they had to adhere to Kashrut dietary laws which meant there could be no mixture of dairy with the meat products. Chinese food was the perfect choice since you won’t find chow main alfredo on a Chinese menu. When I thought about this I realized that you don’t find cheese in any Chinese dishes let alone cream sauces. The only time I’ve seen any dairy at a Chinese restaurant was when I accidentally ate one of those tiny black peppers that was so hot it through me into a coughing fit and the waiter brought me a glass of milk while laughing at me in a kind of schadenfreude way.
An orthodox Jewish person would be guaranteed that anything they ordered from a Chinese restaurants menu could hold up to their dietary laws. I suppose this would also link in the Chinese Muslim restaurant in San Francisco because Kashrut is very similar to the Muslim’s Halal.
So back to the Jewish origin of Egg Fu Yung. Today it’s usually an omelette with ham in it, but back in 1874 a Jewish lover of Chinese Food suggested they make him an omelette with duck and vegetables mixed in. The cook threw it together and the original Egg Fu Yung came into being. Well, it was probably a little before that because for it to be the highlight of the menu in 1874 word had to have gotten around about it.
San Francisco has the largest Chinatown outside of China and while many of the dishes you find in the Chinese restaurants are touted as being traditional or authentic, that’s not necessarily true. When the Chinese came to America they didn’t have access to the same ingredients that they had back home so they adapted their cuisine to what they could find here. Chinese food being considered exotic to the white Americans back in the earlier parts of the 20th century caused more changes to the cuisine to help people with a, well, whiter palate eat them which would in turn make the restaurant owner more money.
Today things have changed a bit since more of the original ingredients are available, but the palate of Americans as well as Chinese-Americans still like Egg Fu Yung and Sweet and Sour Pork the way it was originally made in the good old USA.