The Fortune Cookie Chronicles

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    Bloomberg: Lee whets our appetites with light, easy-to-digest stories.

    By Jennifer 8. Lee | March 8, 2008

    Bloomberg News moved a review by Yvette Ferreol. It’s interesting to me how much the business press has taken to it: Forbes (the meanest review I got), Fast Company, now Bloomberg.

    March 6 (Bloomberg) — China’s Qing-dynasty hero Zuo Zongtang, aka General Tso, probably never had fried chicken. At least not the deep-fried boneless kind soused in citrusy sweet- and-sour sauce that’s served at Chinese takeout places and all- you-can-eat buffets across America.

    And those “Chinese” fortune cookies millions of Americans look forward to cracking after a satisfying meal? They may have originated in Japan.

    Jennifer 8. Lee, a New York Times reporter, shares these discoveries in “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food,” a virtual dim sum trolley of interesting facts put together by the New York-born daughter of Taiwanese immigrants.

    The story begins with a lottery number. In March 2005, more than a hundred ticket holders presented winning numbers in an interstate Powerball lottery. The sweepstakes office went into a tizzy over the unexpected $20 million payout. Could the numbers have been leaked? Turns out the winners had gotten their “tips” from one specific source: a fortune cookie.

    Lee’s curiosity was piqued. Her search for the manufacturer led her to question the history of the cookies that are a ubiquitous sight in many of the approximately 40,000 Chinese restaurants in the U.S. As Lee points out, that’s “more than the number of McDonald’s, Burger Kings and KFCs combined.”

    “Our benchmark for Americanness is apple pie,” she writes. “But ask yourself: How often do you eat apple pie? How often do you eat Chinese food?”

    No-Soy Sauce

    Lee whets our appetites with light, easy-to-digest stories. We join her in her search for the makers of white cardboard pails (no seams, no glue) and plastic packets of brown sauce (should a packet labeled soy sauce contain real soy?).

    Then there’s her trip to General Tso’s childhood home, and her around-the-world tour of 15 countries on six continents to find “the world’s greatest Chinese restaurant outside China.” Food critics may disagree with the methodology that led to her choice: Zen Fine Chinese Cuisine, a restaurant in a suburban strip mall outside Vancouver.

    The clincher: “Zen’s half-price special was a bargain,” Lee writes. “Never forget that ‘bang for your buck’ is a hallmark of Chinese food around the world.”

    The book gets meatier when she tells the story of the ill- fated four-month journey of the Golden Venture, a freighter that ran aground off Queens in 1993, carrying nearly 300 illegal Chinese immigrants. Many of the unlucky passengers had paid tens of thousands of dollars to “snakeheads,” or human smugglers, so they could make it to the U.S. to get low-paying jobs as restaurant workers. Ten drowned while trying to make it ashore.

    A Survivor’s Story

    Lee talks to a survivor about his journey: “the 30 days through the Burmese jungles, the year in semicaptivity in Bangkok, the 112 days on the Golden Venture, and the nearly four years in detention” for illegally entering the U.S.

    “Was [it] worth all that?” Lee asks the man, who now owns a Chinese restaurant in Ohio.

    “If you had told me to do it again, I wouldn’t,” he tells her. “You are gambling with your life.”

    “But it wasn’t about him, was it?” Lee writes. “They don’t gamble with their lives for their own sakes. They do it for their parents — and their children.”

    The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food” is from Twelve (320 pages, $24.99).

    (Yvette Ferreol is a writer for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

    To contact the writer of this story: Yvette Ferreol in New York at

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