The Fortune Cookie Chronicles

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    Time: “its many revelations will force readers to consider the often strange routes their favorite dishes — authentic or not — took to the plate.”

    By Jennifer 8. Lee | May 22, 2008

    Ling Woo Liu did a review for just today. When it landed in my Google Alerts, I was like, whoa. Is this a review two.5 months out?

    She too did not like the around the world chapter. Oh well. Here it goes.

    The chic and pricey China Club in Hong Kong is about the only place in China where you’ll find fortune cookies served after a meal. Like the Cultural Revolution memorabilia in the club’s bar, the cookies are meant to be amusing and ironic. But the fact that they’re an in-joke among Hong Kong’s fashionable diners, as opposed to the time-honored conclusion to meals that they are in Chinese restaurants in the U.S., illustrates just how divorced real Chinese cooking has become from its American offshoot.

    Exploring that bifurcation is the business of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles by New York Times reporter Jennifer 8. Lee (whose curious middle name, 8., is a pun on the Chinese word for prosperity). A Chinese-American from New York City, Lee had her interest in Chinese food piqued during a year spent studying in Beijing, where she was continuously reminded that the real cuisine was nothing like the deep-fried, sauce-coated dishes U.S. diners thought of as Chinese. Chinese food in China, she knew, was much healthier, with less sodium and grease (and more varied animal parts) than Americans imagine. “Mainstream Americans don’t like to be reminded that the food on their plate once lived, breathed, swam, or walked,” writes Lee. Neither do they pause to think of just how Americanized, in the U.S., Chinese food — or more accurately Chinese-style food — has become. Lee points out that there are 40,000 Chinese restaurants in America — more than the number of McDonalds, Burger Kings and KFCs combined. “Our benchmark for Americanness is apple pie,” she points out. “But ask yourself: How often do you eat apple pie? How often do you eat Chinese food?”

    More than just trivia, Lee’s book explores how Chinese-American cuisine was the commercially expedient invention of migrants, who devised new dishes — or adapted recipes from their homeland — in order to cater to American tastes. The sweet and spicy Chinatown classic, General Tso’s Chicken, is one such creation, which Lee attempts to trace to the Qing dynasty general’s hometown in Hunan province, only to be told that no one has heard of the dish (although a local official thinks the association would be a great way to generate tourism). But just as the demographics of America have been transformed, so has the business of Chinese-American food today. Top restaurant chain P.F. Chang’s China Bistro was actually founded by one Paul Fleming, its name derived from Fleming’s initials and an alternative spelling of consultant Phillip Chiang’s surname. The largest distributor of soy-sauce packets in the U.S., Kari-Out, is owned by a Jewish family in New York City (and Kari-Out soy sauce contains no soy). In the Los Angeles area, fortune cookies, noodles, sheets of wonton pastry and dumplings are mostly made by Mexican workers.

    The conditions experienced by the new multicultural labor forces are beyond Lee’s remit, but her inquiries into Chinese restaurant workers in America make up some of the strongest writing in the book. Many were lured to America when China did not provide the opportunities it does now, and large numbers of them have willingly participated in a vast people-smuggling network, paying fees that can leave them with crippling debt for years.

    The great majority of America’s Chinese restaurant workers hail from Fujian province, which Lee visits. In one village, Houyu, she finds that more than three-quarters of the village population has left to work in restaurants in the U.S. One school even teaches “restaurant English” to students hoping to go abroad. Once in the U.S., Lee explains, many Chinese restaurant workers pass through New York City’s Chinatown, where employment agencies field calls from Chinese restaurants around the country and send workers onto buses with scraps of paper bearing three numbers like this: “$2,400, 440 near Cleveland, 10 hours.” That’s a monthly salary, the telephone area code of the city where the restaurant is located and the length of the journey from New York City.

    The book is at its weakest during Lee’s ill-conceived — and entirely gratuitous — quest to discover the world’s greatest Chinese restaurant outside greater China. The restaurant reviews clash with the rest of the book’s anthropological depth, and Lee’s search is maddeningly shallow. (Just one restaurant in Paris?) By the end of this chapter, most readers won’t care which restaurant won the title.

    But the rest of the book is crafted with care, and its many revelations will force readers to consider the often strange routes their favorite dishes — authentic or not — took to the plate. And if you, like me, were puzzled by the origin of the fortune cookie, well, that’s understandable. Lee discovers that the first fortune cookies came from Japan, where they are called tsujiura senbei. Japanese-Americans sold them in the U.S. until they were forced into internment camps during World War II. That’s when Chinese restaurateurs started handing them out instead. Chinese-American cooking is all about opportunity, after all.

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