Jennifer 8. Lee

"The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food"

(Reviewed by Poornima Apte JUN 17, 2008)

The Fortune Cookie Chronicles by Jennifer 8. Lee

Many years ago, on U.S. 70 somewhere in Indiana, my husband and I took a wrong exit for lunch. We expected to find nothing and were getting ready to turn around. This was a tiny Midwestern town, what Jennifer 8. Lee in her engaging book The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, calls an “afterthought for cartographers.” Yet on a main street that boasted one small post office and one dry cleaning operation, we found Golden Dragon, a Chinese restaurant, and gratefully tucked into Kung Pao chicken and vegetable fried rice.

As it turns out, we had stumbled across one of the 40,000 Chinese restaurants in the United States, and author Jennifer 8. Lee takes us on a tasty culinary ride to a few of these as she illuminates the various aspects of Chinese food. There are wonderful chapters devoted to the history of the fortune cookie (these were originally created by the Japanese Americans and known as senbei—the Chinese took over after the internment of the Japanese after World War II), and Lee even chases down the origins of General Tso's chicken in Hunan province. As one might have guessed, there is no such thing in China.

Lee's accounts of the beginnings of Chinese takeout and other aspects are lively and entertaining. She does not, however, shy away from training her reporting on the harsher aspects of the business—the endless working hours for immigrants, the trade in illegals and the adverse effects of these in China.

In her travels to China, Lee visits provinces and towns with massive amounts of emigrants to the United States. In the small village of Houyu for example, there are hardly any young men left. The descriptions of these ghost towns where all the able-bodied men have been shipped to the United States to make a living is a chilling one. “The expectation was that real men went to the United States and sent what seemed like massive amounts of money back—with only a hint of the difficult conditions needed to earn that money,” Lee writes. Even the construction that is being carried out at a feverish pace because of all the influx of money is carried out by waidiren, out-of-towners. Lee comes across some Chinese learning rudimentary English material from a textbook called Practical English for Chinese Restaurants. “He (the teacher) wrote the names of a number of dishes common in Chinese restaurants on the board,” Lee writes. “Among them was 'French Fries.' He pointed to the board and warned the students not to pronounce it 'French Flies.'”

Some of Lee's arguments to establish Chinese food as quintessentially American and possibly replacing the apple pie sound a tad specious.  “Our benchmark for Americanness is apple pie. But ask yourself: How often do you eat apple pie? How often do you eat Chinese food?” she writes.

One of Lee's many assignments is to travel around the world in search of the best Chinese restaurant. She visits London, Paris, Mumbai, Mauritius, Sydney and more. Towards the end of the book, she chronicles these various adventures. Her work here reads a bit disjointed—an attempt to create something out of all those meals and the entire chapter taken together lacks the cohesiveness of the others, almost cramming too much or too little into each subsection.

Overall, Lee does do a good job at explaining why Chinese food is so popular all across the world. For one thing it has a special ability to incorporate the local cuisine. “A driving force behind Chinese cooking is the desire to adapt and incorporate indigenous ingredients and utilize Chinese cooking techniques,” says a restaurateur to Lee. Lee makes many other strong points in The Fortune Cookie Chronicles and the love of Chinese cuisine all over the world, especially here at home, is unquestionably strong. Interestingly enough, the real Chinese food her mother makes, Lee predicts, would not sit too well with Americans: “She used preserved foods: eerily translucent thousand-year-old eggs, spicy pickled bamboo shoots, vinegared mustard greens,” Lee writes of her mother's authentic Chinese cooking.

The Chinese food served at American restaurants is a different beast altogether. Like many other popular staples, Chinese food at a takeout is fairly consistent. It is predictable and familiar. As Lee puts it, “it's American. It just looks Chinese.”

  • Amazon readers rating: from 34 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from The Fortune Cookie Chronicles at author's website

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About the Author:

Jennifer 8 LeeJennifer 8. Lee was born in 1976 and is the daughter of Chinese immigrants and a fluent speaker of Mandarin Chinese herself, grew up eating her mother's authentic Chinese food in her family's New York City kitchen before graduating from Harvard in 1999 with a degree in Applied Mathematics and economics and studying at Beijing University. At the age of 24, she was hired by the New York Times, where she is a metro reporter and has written a variety of stories on culture, poverty, and technology.

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