The Fortune Cookie Chronicles

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    Toronto Star Review, with Jen Lin Liu and Fuschia Dunlop

    By Jennifer 8. Lee | October 26, 2008

    Only in looking through Nexis, did I discover this Toronto Star review from July, subtitled “A female trio of Chinese food lovers – two in China itself and one in New York – explore the eats and the culture.”

    It reviews my book, Fuschia Dunlop’s “Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Memoir of Eating in China”, and Jen Lin Liu’s “Serve the People: A Stir Fried Journey Through China.” A very natural Fit

    A Groaning Board of Chinese Cuisine:
    A female trio of Chinese food lovers – two in China itself and one in New York – explore the eats and the culture

    By Christine Sismondo
    July 20, 2008

    On March 30, 2005, 110 Americans hit a national lottery jackpot.

    That may not sound like all that many. In fact, that number was 30 times higher than the probability for hitting five correct numbers in a U.S. Powerball lottery. The unexpected, statistically anomalous pay out? Nearly $20 million in total. Numbers like that just don’t happen without some kind of explanation. So the lottery officials launched an inquest.

    It wasn’t some sort of fancy computer fraud. Nor was it an error on the lottery’s end. Nor were the winners all connected by blood, employment or region. It turned out that the only common bond these people shared was a penchant for sweet and sour chicken balls and a willingness to follow the sage teachings of Confucius.

    It was the fortune cookies. Or, rather, five of the six numbers printed on the fortune found inside the cookie.

    Well, perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that the ubiquitous Golden Dragon fortune cookie was the common denominator in those 110 people’s lives, since, to hear a few writers tell it, Chinese food – of one sort or another – may well be one of the universal cultural experiences.

    Of course, Chinese food can be radically different from place to place. Fuchsia Dunlop is a remarkable human who took off from England to China way before it was cool to do so, and dove headfirst, into Sichuan cooking and culture. The result is Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China.

    Dunlop divides Chinese cooking, itself, into four main cuisines: grand northern (roast meats, rich soups and expensive delicacies); specialties from the eastern provinces (drunken shrimps, freshwater crabs and water chestnuts); minimalist Cantonese (translucent shrimp dumplings, ginger, green onions and soy); and her true love, spicy Sichuan.

    Dunlop went to China as a student, but the academic side of things didn’t work out so great. As she came to realize that fact, her brief depression and feelings of isolation were assuaged by breakfast dumplings in hot chili sauce. She managed to forge connections with locals through food and, soon enough, was revitalized and had new direction.

    That probably makes it all sound a lot easier than it was. Dunlop was the first Westerner ever to train at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine and, between the language barrier and the novelty of being a Western intellectual slumming it at cooking school (cooking is an extremely low-status trade in China), she had her fair share of challenges.

    But Dunlop’s determination is amazing. She not only became an accomplished chef but also managed to write three cookbooks and, now, the memoir, in which she manages to relate her story and simultaneously explain the cultural context of the cuisine.

    Dunlop also experiences a taste transformation, which she describes as “going native.” Although she describes herself as an “adventurous eater” before her trip to China, preserved duck eggs, the skinning of live rabbits and epic nose-to-tail eating does manage to turn her off – initially. She is continually presented with concrete evidence that the Chinese really do eat everything.

    By the end of her odyssey, she eats with the best of them, evidenced by her plucking a caterpillar right out of a garden and eating it live.

    Not bad for a Westerner. Especially when you consider that even Jen Lin-Liu, author of Serve the People: A Stir-Friend Journey through China, actually grew up eating “authentic” Chinese food in America and still couldn’t stomach the abundance of jellyfish, fish heads and chicken feet. She, too, is devouring them by the end.

    Lin-Liu had moved from America to Shanghai to work as a freelance journalist. She was lucky enough to land just as the American market for stories about China was budding. Despite career success, she felt alienated. Not at home with either the ex-pat community (since she was Chinese) nor with the native-born Chinese (because of her relatively poor language skills and strange accent), Lin-Liu decided to try to learn about the culture through its most easily accessible commodity.

    “If I can’t connect with the people, at least I’m going to connect with the food,” she decided.

    Like Dunlop, she then went to cooking school, moving from Shanghai to Beijing to enrol in a rather bizarre-sounding culinary institute where she listened to hours of food theory – much of it, she says, of questionable accuracy. If you want to learn about how eating fish heads will repair brain cells and how eating spicy food improves the complexion, this would be the cooking school for you.

    Lin-Liu manages to secure some private instruction on the side and, later, apprenticeships, through which she actually masters the art of making noodles.

    And much, much more, of course. Lin-Liu’s book is highly entertaining, in part because she manages in the end to truly delve into the culture and history of the country and its food. While she makes dumplings with her first mentor, a history of the unhappy marriage between cuisine and Chairman Mao unfolds.

    our final guide never actually went to cooking school. But that’s okay, too, because Jennifer 8. Lee, a Chinese-American newspaper writer who grew up in New York, takes an entirely different tack. She’s interested in a more esoteric side of Chinese food – its cultural meaning and how it’s been interpreted outside of China.

    In The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food, Lee points out that eating Chinese food is universal in America. She says there are twice as many Chinese restaurants as there are McDonalds. What’s more, the menus are roughly standardized. Travel almost anywhere in America (or Canada) and you can pick up a tasty General Tso chicken for a decent price as easily as you could satisfy a Big Mac attack.

    Sure, General Tso chicken isn’t “authentic.” But who really cares about what’s authentic and what isn’t? Is it even a valid category? Lee critiques the snobbery that goes along with that categorization, rightly pointing out that food is always about exchange between cultures. Lee then explores the origins of those most inauthentic Chinese food dishes: General Tso (Taiwan), Chop Suey (America) and, of course, fortune cookies (Japan via San Francisco).

    It’s the fortune cookies that really intrigue her. In fact, Lee’s odyssey into Chinese food begins with the Powerball lottery story mentioned earlier. Lee traces the history of the fortune cookie that led them to their destiny.

    And what about Wonton Food, the company that picked the winning Powerball numbers? Should we all start playing the lotto with fortune cookie numbers?

    Maybe so. They hit another jackpot that same year and 83 other lucky people won the lottery.
    Just how do they do it? It’s obvious if you think about it.
    Ancient Chinese Secret.

    Christine Sismondo is the author of Mondo Cocktail: A Shaken and Stirred History (McArthur & Co.).

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