|Thai-Chinese buffet in London|
Like many Jewish folk, we'll be gobbling Chinese food this evening—not in a restaurant, but carry-out, with friends. This story, like yesterday's tree tale, is also from 1998, and is noteworthy because a) I broke form and focused on a Thai restaurant, which also do brisk business on Christmas, though all the attention goes to Chinese restaurants; and b) after the story ran, a rabbi phoned me to complain that it somehow maligned the concept of a "Jewish tradition." The smart thing to do would be to cluck pacifying noises and get off the phone as quickly as possible. I of course didn't do that, but, sincerely aghast, tried to make the rabbi understand that his phoning and bitching about nothing made Jews look worse than the supposed slight he was complaining about.
Let's just say I did not win him over to my way of thinking. A reminder not to spoil your holiday with snits. However you chow down this evening, Merry Christmas.
Midafternoon Christmas Day, and five of the seven woks in the kitchen of Star of Siam are sizzling and steaming over orange flames as white-tocqued chefs tend to spicy shrimp and cashew chicken.
They are watched by Eddie Dulyapaibul, owner of the restaurant at 11 E. Illinois as well as four other downtown Thai restaurants, all of them open on Christmas.
"There is no holiday for your stomach," he said. "We are like nurses, police or the Fire Department -- we have to be here, as long as people have to eat."
Asian restaurants are known as havens for the wide range of humanity who have a hankering for Szechuan beef or crispy noodles on a day normally associated with baked ham and roast turkey.
"Where else can a Jew eat on Christmas?" said Randi Schafton, 36, dining with her husband and friends at Mars, a Chinese restaurant at 3124 N. Clark. "Christmas at a Chinese restaurant is a Jewish tradition."
A Jewish tradition, perhaps, but also a Muslim one. At Star of Siam, Shaukat Fidai and a dozen of his family members -- a brother, a sister and lots of kids -- held a festive celebration of several family members' birthdays.
"At Christmastime, it's a family thing," said his wife, Mumtaz.
"We do believe in Christmas," said Sadiq Fidai, 22, of his family, who are Pakistani Muslims living in Palatine, Naperville and Darien. "Jesus was one of our prophets."
But a key motivation for dining at that particular restaurant -- one of their favorites -- on Christmas Day was the ease in getting there from the suburbs.
"No traffic, we got parking -- that was the best part," Aly Virani said.
The New Peking Restaurant, 3132 N. Broadway, was utterly empty at 5:30 p.m. But the owner, Lily Chou, said lunch had been "so busy" and that she was expecting a late dinner rush.
"A lot of our customers were very happy that we're open," she said, noting that the restaurant began opening for Christmas this year.
At Star of Siam, Egis Petonis and his five friends sat at a window table a few feet from the Fidai party. The tourists from Lithuania had searched for an hour before finding an open restaurant. They went in, even though they had never eaten Thai food. They rated it highly, if different from Eastern European fare.
"It's very good," said Aureliga Rimkut, 25, adding that they had their traditional Christmas dinner the night before at a friend's house.
The sentiment was echoed by Gordon and Carol Kopulos, of the Southwest Side.
"Our big celebration is Christmas Eve," Carol Kopulos said. "We come here to relax and be waited on."
They were joined by their daughter, Piper, her classmate at Dominican University in River Forest, Jeremy Kitchen, 28, and their friends, Mike and Gloria Gilles.
The Kopuloses did note a hint of protest in their Thai feast, however.
"We wanted to be cosmopolitan and are disillusioned with all that religiosity,'' Gordon Kopulos said.
"We don't like the regular Christmas thing," said Piper, 19.
—Originally published in the Chicago Sun-Times, Dec. 26, 1998