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[218] The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food – Jennifer 8. Lee

Fortune“Chinese food has become an American comfort food in part because it is so predictable.” [266]
“Nearly everyone has a go-to Chinese restaurant.” [10]

In spring 2005, while the lottery board launched an investigation on a possible fraud after dozens of people across America claimed the jackpot, Jennifer 8. Lee was on a mission to solve the mystery of how these people have obtained the same set of winning numbers from fortune cookies. Not only has her journey to Chinese restaurants across the country arrived in a surprising conclusion of the fortune cookie’s origin, it also unfolds a rich cultural history of Chinese Americans and explains how Chinese food has spread everywhere and becomes a brand of its own.

What Chinese restaurant menu doesn’t offer beef broccoli, sesame chicken, roast pork lo mein, fried wontons, egg rolls, and egg drop soup? [267]

While every country has a Chinese dish that grabs its attention, Lee, who has set her feet on six continents, from New York to London, Paris, Dubai, Mumbai, Rome, Mauritius, Lima, Singapore, and Tokyo, to search for the greatest (not necessarily the best, because how does one define best anyway?) observes that regardless of the locale, the local taste, dictated by habit, has decided that fried rice, chow mein, and sweet-and-sour pork (or any batter-dipped meat) were going to be the standard-bearers of Chinese cuisine.

At my favorite Chinese restaurant that serves Hong Kong-style seafood dishes in San Francisco, the expansive menu boasts traditional fares and delicacies that remind me of my grandparents’ Chinese New year feast. The seafood and fancy ingredients, as well as dark meat with bones, appeal to Chinese clientele, of which my father is a representative. He is a vehement critic of Chinese restaurants that have gone astray (his own words), assimilating to the standard of American-Chinese (note that he doesn’t say Chinese-American) dishes that cater to gwai-los (foreigners). Peeking over at the other tables at The Great Eastern, I saw that most people had ordered the usual as if they order in: fried rice, chow mein, fried wontons, and egg foo young—just extremely pricey versions of those common dishes. In Los Angeles, to be exact the San Gabriel Valley where the Chinese pack the strip malls full of eateries, dim sum ladies in white smocks and purple aprons flock to our table with an assortment of dim sum plates, all deep fried. Those who brandish steamed dumplings and other Chinese favorites, which my American friend (a gwai lo) savors, stream by us without touting.

You can’t have a great Chinese restaurant unless Chinese people go. . . Would the greatest Chinese restaurant be a Chinese restaurant for Chinese people? Or would it be for others? Could it possibly be for both? [212-213]

Lee’s experience resonates with me because in order to reach out to the large swath of America that has yet escaped “the [culinary] gravitational pull of homogeneity”, Chinese food must inevitably alter the texture of food to suit the taste Americans have grown up with. One may only push the boundary of Chinese cuisine on foodies who are used to the real ethnic fares. In modern terminology, Lee observes, an ethnic cuisine has to undergo a global localization dictated by individual tastes. Lee and I agree that a great Chinese restaurant must appeal to both Chinese and non-Chinese in appealing to them a unique set of circumstances that are specific to the Chinese dining experience.

But Chinese food, cooked in a Chinese style for Chinese taste buds, is actually relatively healthy: lots of vegetables and seafood and low in sodium, with few deep-fried ingredients. The problem is that most Americans prefer American-style Chinese food to the real thing. [75]

Which comes to the point about how America is notorious for simplifying, reducing, and mass-producing many refined foods from around the world in order to suit the American palate. The mysterious (at least to the Chinese) General Tso’s chicken, and the soy sauce packet (sans soy) are few prime examples. Chain like P.F. Chang (there is no Mr. Chang) is a pure American creation that caters to non-Asian clientele in an upscale environment. At P.F. Chang Chinese food ceases to be ethnic because were it not for the “certain Chinese-ish items”, the restaurant could be a nice steakhouse.

One of the quickest way to learn about a culture is to explore its culinary practices. Jennifer 8. Lee has written a part travelogue on food tasting and part cultural history on how Chinese food has wormed its way to become a weekly or monthly rituals of American families. Many surprises are in store in this well-written documentary piece. As a Chinese-American, I find her book very informative and accurate on our perspective of what Chinese food is in America.

309 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss]

20 Responses

  1. As I told you, this book ended up in my first random selection for the Random Reading Challenge. It sounds like a great read. We’ll see how soon I can get to it!!

  2. I love Chinese food! It seems you are coming around to non-fiction after all…

  3. I’m excited to read this now! I wonder how my own taste stacks up, as I grew up eating Chinese food in the Philippines. Mostly made by my grandmother, who learned to cook from her father who had a Chinese restaurant back in the days, and who came from China to the Philippines already a grown man. So I’m wondering how heavily influenced our Chinese food is by Philippine cuisine (which is mostly Spanish- and Chinese-influenced, anyway, in turn, ha). I notice, too, that Chinese restaurants there are somehow different from those here in Canada. Also from the ones in Hong Kong and China. I love Hong Kong, by the way, I know you grew up there, just love the food, amazing.

  4. I have this one on my shelf, and I admit that I read the chapter on General Tso right away. Love the book so far, and hope to get back to it soon.

    –Anna

  5. I was interested to find out more about what Chinese people eat, as opposed to what’s served in most American “Chinese Restaurants.” I’ve also reviewed this book at http://necromancyneverpays.blogspot.com/2008/08/no-surprises.html

  6. Just realising that the Chinese Malaysian food I grew up with and the Chinese food served in restaurants in Australia differs from the Chinese restaurant food in the US:

    “beef broccoli, sesame chicken, roast pork lo mein, fried wontons, egg rolls, and egg drop soup”

    I don’t think we have lo mein or egg rolls or egg drop soup here, commonly. Or rather, we may have it, but I don’t think the English names are the same…

  7. Thanks for another book that I have to get my hands on…will make for interesting reading.

  8. I thought this sounded good when it first came out and will watch for it in paper. I expect that the Chinese food I eat/have been exposed to is only a very Americanized version of the real (or does it resemble the real thing at all?) Chinese cuisine.

  9. This sounds like a fascinating read. I’m going to have to check this one out, especially since Chinese food is one of my favorites.

  10. Sandy:
    I’m looking forward to reading your thoughts! I’m so behind with my comments and blog reading… *ugh*

  11. rhodoraonline:
    I am taking a plunge into non-fiction finally! I’ve got this other book called “Why I Hate Abercrombie & Fitch”. Another non-fiction.

    By the way, do you have a blog?

  12. claire:
    My favorite activity in Hong Kong (my hometown) is eating. Hong Kong local cuisine has lots of seafood and roast poultry. But Hong Kong is where East meets West, with a plethora of international and fusion cuisine. I cannot help gaining a few pounds after I return!

  13. diaryofaneccentric:
    OMG yes, General Tsao chicken is totally an American invention. Other than the name the entire dish and its ingredients are foreign to Chinese people!

  14. Jeanne:
    Thanks so much for the link. 🙂

  15. CW
    What a surprise! What are the common Chinese fares in Australia?

  16. cheeky angel:
    I was thinking how you must be interested in reading this one while I was writing the review. 🙂

  17. Danielle:
    I think the Americanized version is more “softcore”, meaning no bones, no shady ingredients, no innards, and are cooked in ways to cater American palate. I would like to hear your thoughts on the book. 🙂

  18. sagustocox:
    Oh you’re in a treat for yummy food and their stories. It’s a great read and a different kind of cultural history. 🙂

  19. […] the heels of Jennifer 8. Lee’s The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, I welcome a gwailo’s (foreigner, or Caucasian male) perspective of Chinese food in America. […]

  20. […] and shortest book titles? The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food and […]

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