Top 100 Cake Blog

Top 100 Cake Blog

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Why Are These Cookies Called Chinaman Chews?

On Sunday, DH and I went on a "three hour tour" aboard a tugboat in New York Harbor.  And in the spirit of Gilligan's Island, this lasted a *bit* longer than anticipated.  Once home (after a lovely and oh-so-welcome glass of wine at Acqua, an excellent Seaport restaurant), I couldn't wait to turn on the oven, for it was cold and windy aboard the tug near the end.

I found an intriguing recipe called, I thought, Cinnamon Chews, in a recipe box I got recently in Akron.  These are very unusual: the batter is baked in one piece, cut into squares and then those squares are rolled into balls.  Quite a bit of geometry going on in one baked good.

The batter with dates and nuts incorporated.
Sometime during the making of these, I realized that there wasn't any cinnamon in them and took a closer look at the handwritten recipe.  The recipe's author, Ethyle (note the exotic spelling!) called them Chinaman Chews and I can't figure out why.  A Google search turned up not one clue. (I typically find some information on Google, like when I made Strawberry Rival Pie, my search revealed that rival is another term from crumb topping.)  If anyone out there can illuminate the origins of Chinaman Chews, please let me know.

The baked bar, which was cut into squares and each square was rolled into a ball, steps I forgot to photograph.
In any event, these unique cookies are delicious, easy and fun to make (you get to play with your food). They were a VERY big hit at work, though they are quite sweet. Not that there's anything wrong with that!


  1. Try "Chinese Chews" for your search and you'll find lots of hits. My theory: "Chinamen" is a
    retro term that no one uses anymore in the pc era. I'd guesstimate that
    recipe was written in the 1930s or 40s (note the boast of the CNB being a
    member of the FDIC at the bottom opf the stationery).

  2. Anonymous: Thanks so much! You're right -- found many hits for Chinese Chews, including the following on Barry Popik's website:

    "Chinese Chews” appeared in the June 1917 issue of Good Housekeeping, and the recipe was widely reprinted in newspapers. The main ingredients were dates and English walnuts, along with flour, sugar, baking powder, eggs, and salt. The popularity of “Chinese Chews” has dropped, but modern versions contain coconut and chocolate chips.

    The origin of the name “Chinese Chews” for a snack with dates and English walnuts is a mystery that has not been explained.

  3. This is a stretch but is CHEW a last namein China?

  4. Im no expert but judging by the typeset on that paper i would think this recipe to have been written in the 70s or 80s with myself leaning towards 80s

    1. Yeah, and it's amazing how 'squares' and 'dust' weren't obscured by the crumpled edge. In fact, none of the words are faded and they haven't been disrupted by the crumpled paper. It's almost like text was superimposed on an existing document. Amazing!

  5. I have a similar recipe from my mother. From Indiana, near Ohio border, south of Fort Wayne. 3 eggs--beat well. Add 1 cup sugar, beat 1 min or so. Blend in 3/4 cup sifted flour, 2 tsp salt. Stir in 1 cup chopped nuts or 1 cup raisins and nuts or 1 cup dates and nuts. Bake on jelly roll pan (shallow), on wax paper---no grease, oil, butter, etc. Bake 400 degree oven for 10-12 minutes. Cut into squares while warm and roll in powdered sugar.

  6. My guess is the 1917 version of Chinese Chews had little to do with China and more to do with a fascination with Oriental culture and imagery that was extremely popular in the first few decades of the the 20th century.

    I came across a 1917 First World War recipe from a Toronto, Ontario, Canada patriotic cookbook called, "Aunt Hanna's War-time and Peace-Time Recipe". The recipe titled, 'Hard Tack Good For Overseas' by Mrs. James Gairdner, calls for 1 cup walnuts, 1 cup dates, cup flour, 1 cup sugar, 1/2 teaspoon baking powder, two eggs. They are baked, then cut in strips and rolled in icing sugar while still warm.

    Another 1920 cookbook called, "Choice Recipes", by Order of the Eastern Star, in Sacramento, California, USA, has a similar recipe called 'Japanese Hard Tack''. Same ingredients and rolled in powdered sugar and cut in strips the size of ladyfingers.

    I think the early versions of Chinese Chews were formed into balls and rolled in granulated sugar, and Hard Tack and Japanese Hard Tack were bars coated in powdered sugar.

  7. Ginger, y'all! Many of the recipes have ginger and that is the Chinese connection!

  8. Found this article in the Washington Post, "Walnuts hold a special place in Chinese culture, as they are believed to nourish the lungs, relieve coughs and improve circulation, and during the new year, they are eaten for happiness. Chinese walnut cookies, or Hup Toh Soh, are my idea of simple happiness."

  9. My family made these every Christmas beginning in the 50's. We used pecans instead of walnuts and plain flour (no baking powder). Carol in New Orleans

  10. I have my mom’s recipe called Chinese Chew and it’s made with a boxed yellow cake mix with the addition of extra eggs, sugar, baking powder, salt , coconut and pecans. I add chocolate chips.

  11. There actually exist a Chinese chewy snack made with dates and walnut. Maybe the name and recipe was inspired from it. You can google “Chinese date walnut cake”