For many, the holidays can be a source of immense stress. For people celebrating, there’s often an expectation of a certain level of effort to be given when it comes to cooking, whether in the form of sheer quantity or specificity of food. It’s understandable — food is such a crucial part of how we interact with one another.
With so many holidays tied to changing seasons, it’s only natural the Insert Holiday Here meal would be so important. But, for those of us who, for whatever reason, are not celebrating, a feeling of being left out and isolated is often the result.
The last few years (pandemics aside) have seen the rise of Friendsgivings, or, more simply, meals with friends meant to replace or supplement a holiday. Being able to crowdsource the meal and omit your annoying relatives is intensely appealing. Even better, you can often skip the home cooking without drama. But this takes inspiration from a much older tradition — that of Chinese food on Christmas day.
Those early restaurant-owning immigrants were no doubt concerned the first time no customers walked through the doors on Dec. 25 — a day like any other to them. How word spread to the Jewish communities of these cities is anyone’s guess, but the relationship was conceived and has run continuously since then.
It’s symbiotic; on a day when nearly every service and store is closed, being able to go out and enjoy something alternative to the holiday must come as a welcome relief. The tradition has spread far beyond Judaism, encompassing anyone who doesn’t celebrate Christmas, doesn’t want to cook, or knows they can’t cook nearly as well.
As the son of immigrants to whom Dec. 25 meant very little, I decided to pay homage to this new tradition. Wrangling a few of my friends was easy with the promise of free food.
We opted to place an enormous order at a longtime favorite haunt of mine — Xing’s Panda Palace, located in Sunset Square. It has kept me fed and watered on many a day while working on a remodel nearby. They also happen to make one of my favorite dishes: Peking duck, which is labor-intensive and relatively uncommon. With a two-hour reserve for ordering this Beijing-originated dish, it’s not an impulse purchase.
Returning successfully with a plethora of tightly tied plastic bags, we laid out our bounty: quart containers full of egg drop soup, squeaky polystyrene boxes piled high with Mongolian beef and sweet-and-sour pork, and a Kraft paper takeout box with carefully cubed duck. Containers full of spring onions, cucumber, Hoisin sauce, and thin “chun bing” pancakes followed closely behind.
As plates were loaded, I produced a bottle of baijiu, a sorghum-heavy Chinese spirit. To me, it’s fragrant and herbal. To most everyone else, it was “lighter fluid.” Different tastes, I suppose. Conveniently, being among friends, no one felt the need to spare my feelings, so, more for me.
Mounds of fried rice topped with savory Mongolian beef, alongside velvety egg drop soup, paired beautifully with the sharp nose of my glass of baijiu.
Xing’s is skilled in the classic, solid Americanized Chinese food we’ve all had. Fried foods are crisp without being greasy or burnt. Stir-fried foods have a superb “wok hei,” caramelized and smokey.
The star of the show, taking the central place of honor like a Thanksgiving turkey, Hanukkah brisket or Super Bowl seven-layer dip, was the Peking duck. It’s a technically difficult dish, with the skin being separated from the subcutaneous fat and the meat, inflated to insulate the meat, blanched, then hung up and baked.
The result is tight, crispy skin and beautifully cooked meat. It’s served in the traditional way — cubed, right off the bone. The skin, separated from the meat, is enjoyed on its own, revealing the succulent meat. Take a chun bing, fill it with meat, vegetables and hoisin sauce, and roll it up. Absolutely delicious.
The conversation flowed freely, the liquor poured quickly, and the food? Well, we barely made a dent in the incredibly generous servings. Pushing back our plates gave us an opportunity to crack into some of the fortune cookies we’d received. Proving that life can be funny, we discovered the fortunes within were all sponsored by, and emblazoned with the logo of, the now-defunct cryptocurrency exchange FTX.
With this experiment completed, what did I learn? Well, first and foremost, Xing’s is as good as I remember it being. Excellent food, prices and portions help Xing’s stand out solidly from the pack. The Peking duck is a showstopper, something that requires a little forethought and a few extra mouths.
More importantly, I really feel like I can say confidently you don’t need to have a holiday to have a celebratory get-together. If you choose to make it a special occasion, it will be. Take this as a sign — you don’t need an excuse to share a good meal with your friends and family.
Xing’s Panda Palace is open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, and noon to 9 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays at 1145 E. Sunset Dr., #115. Info: pandapalacebellingham.com.