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Fortune Cookies, General Tsao’s Chicken and Chop Suey — Where is it all from?

01 May

It’s such a predictable part of the dining experience at a Chinese restaurant that we hardly give it notice. After slurping down the last of the chow mein and sopping up the last of the beef and broccoli with our rice, we gingerly break apart the golden cookies and read the fortunes, amusing each other by adding “in bed,” to the end of the sentence.

Given how ingrained fortune cookies are to the Chinese-American food experience, you would think that they were from China. Not so, digs up Jennifer 8. Lee in “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles” — they actually originated in Japan.

Lee — a reporter for the New York Times famed for her trend stories — takes us on a journey of Chinese food in America and how it has evolved to become one of the most popular cuisines here. Yet much of the food we associate with Chinese restaurants doesn’t exist in China. She travels to China to trace the origin of many of the American favorites and finds clues, but no cigar.

At times, the writing is overwritten and overly packed with adjectives. Witness:

“Today Houyu is a village of gnarled banyan trees, languid afternoon naps, and abundant hand-caught fresh seafood. It bursts out of the grassy wetlands in a cacophony of smooth colors and glinting metal — monstrous four-story mansions with bulbous spires, ornate front gates, and tiered balconies.”

But whatever Lee lacks in writing she more than makes up for it with her superb reporting. She traces the flow of Chinese restaurant workers around the nation (you know those Chinatown-to-Chinatown buses you can take today to make the cheap trip from New York to Boston and other cities? They were originally used by Chinese restaurant workers to get around!) and gives us an insight into how Chinese restaurants function (because most of the food is unfamiliar to real Chinese, they receive a “manual” on how to cook American-Chinese food when they open up a restaurant).

At the end of the book, Lee goes on a journey to find the “greatest” Chinese restaurant outside of China. I’m dubious of this last chapter and think the book would have done better without, but it does give you a real sense of how far and wide Chinese food has traveled.

Check out Jennifer 8. Lee’s Fortune Cookie Chronicles blog for updates on her research and neat links (I like this Google Maps mashup of Chinese food across America.)

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Posted by on May 1, 2008 in Food Reads

 

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