The Fortune Cookie Chronicles


  • #26 on the New York Times Best Seller List
    and featured on The Colbert Report, Martha Stewart, TED.com, CNN, The Today Show, Good Morning America, Charlie Rose Tomorrow, Newsweek, Entertainment Weekly, and NPR stations coast to coast. Also selected for Borders Original Voices and Book Sense. Follow me on Twitter! Fan me on Facebook.

  • Like “A Year of Living Biblically,” but With Fortune Cookies

    By Jennifer 8. Lee | January 7, 2011

    Every day for a year, a writer, Matt Kelsey, is going to follow the advice of a fortune cookie and play the lucky numbers, to see if it really will make a difference.

    Here is his press release, which I was fascinated by in part because it’s on the Kansas City Star website. Sort of like user-generated, but not. Wonder if they charge or not. Great way to engage a community. Allowing them to send put press releases on the major newspaper web site.

    Local writer to follow fortune cookie advice for one year

    Everyone has cracked open a fortune cookie at the end of a Chinese food meal. But few people these days actually heed the advice given on the tiny paper fortune.
    For one calendar year, freelance writer Matt Kelsey is going to do exactly that.
    Starting on Saturday, January 1, 2011, Kelsey is going to open one fortune cookie each day and follow the whims of the fortune. Additionally, he will also purchase a $1 lottery ticket using the lucky numbers on the back of each day’s fortune.
    Through his new blog, My Daily Fortune, Kelsey will chronicle his fortune cookie adventures. The blog can be found at www.mydailyfortune.blogspot.com.
    “This is a personal growth project for me, but I also believe others can benefit from what I learn,” Kelsey said. “The fortunes found inside cookies are usually basic and simple, but oftentimes those nuggets of wisdom are the most profound.”
    Readers of My Daily Fortune can track Kelsey’s daily updates and even follow the fortunes in their own lives.
    “I think it would be terrific if people could actually participate in the project by leaving comments on their own experiences,” Kelsey said.
    In addition to checking out the project at www.mydailyfortune.blogspot.com, readers can also follow Kelsey’s Twitter (@matt_kelsey) and Facebook updates.

    It looks like he will already be a featured in an article in the Kansas City Star, so there is some luck there. Maybe there is a book out of it.

    Topics: Chinese Food, Fortune Cookies | No Comments »

    Donate to “The Search for General Tso!” (and get on IMDb)

    By Jennifer 8. Lee | January 7, 2011

    Help bring General Tso and his chickens to a theater near you!

    I am co-producing a feature-length documentary on American Chinese food with the Peabody-award winning team behind King Corn, Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis, called “The Search for General Tso.” We think it’s a great way to bring my research to a larger audience in an engaging and informative way.

    And it’s not just us who think that! We got a $40,000 matching developing grant [pdf] from the extremely competitive National Endowment for the Humanities. We need your help. We have a few weeks to unlock $13,000+ of that grant. (All the paperwork is due in February). Your donations are tax deductible since it’s a non-profit. Our fiscal sponsor is Arts Engine.

    That NEH grant, along with generous seed donations, actually helped fund our trip to Taipei to interview the chef who invented General Tso’s chicken, C.K. Peng, last month. Chef Peng is 93, so this was an extremely important interview to do ASAP. And it was hilarious. I just finished translating the interview with the editor this week.

    This picture below is a very intense filming of General Tso’s chicken at Chef Peng’s restaurant, Peng’s Agora Garden.

    The NEH reviewers gave our proposal extremely high ratings.

    This initial development money will get us a long way to creating a trailer, which is then used to raise more serious funding — ideally well into the six-figures (or beyond).

    Watch my talk on TED.com from Taste3 below to get a flavor of the quirky tone of our documentary, which is backed up with extensive research.


    And yes, as you can see from my video/research General Tso is a real guy. He’s a Qing Dynasty military hero from Hunan province whose Chinese name is Zuo Zongtang (左宗棠). Zuo is roughly pronounced ‘juoh.’ Here is a picture of him below from a billboard outside his hometown.

    And yes, there were a lot of chicken in that town.

    So to show our appreciation. If you donate $88 and above, you can join in on a walking tour of Chinatown street food I am doing in New York City on March 5 and 6. If you donate $150 and above, I will send you a signed copy of my book along with a hand-selected Wonton Food fortune (this is where the famed winning Powerball fortunes came from). At $500 and above, I’ll send you a book and a real authentic Japanese fortune cookie, which I just brought back from Kyoto. If you donate over $2,000, I’ll come and do a talk anywhere in the United States, schedule permitting and travel costs covered. If you want any of these, you must email me at jenny8lee[at]fortunecookiechronicles[at]com

    And for the super-ambitious, at $10,000, you get an IMDb listing as a producer! And if you want to be a executive producer (with names on posters and all that), you can donate $100,000 — but don’t do it through credit card, email curt[at]wickedelicate[dot]com (yes, that’s one ‘d’ in Wicked Delicate website. The one with two d’s is a Japanese puppy site)

    Email me at jenny8lee[at]fortunecookiechronicles[dot]com for questions, comments, jokes.

    You can enter your donation below, which will take you to Arts Engine system (the fiscal sponsor). Or you can enter directly on the Arts Engine page. The General and his chickens thank you!

    Donation Amount (in $)


    6% coverage Arts Engine charges a 6% processing fee, would you like to add this to your donation?

    Topics: Chinese Food | No Comments »

    San Francisco Public Library Picks Fortune Cookie Chronicles for Its Book Club

    By Jennifer 8. Lee | January 4, 2011

    We’re San Francisco Public Library’s pick for January/February for their On the Same Page program, which is essentialy San Francisco’s bi-monthly book club. I’m speaking on February 19th in their Chinatown branch. Here are the details

    Saturday, 2/19/2011, 2:30 – 4:00 p.m.
    Chinatown Meeting Room
    Chinatown
    1135 Powell Street, San Francisco CA

    Topics: Appearances, Book Club | No Comments »

    Team General Tso in the Taipei Mountains

    By Jennifer 8. Lee | December 23, 2010


    From left to right:
    Ian Cheney, director and co-producer
    Curt Ellis, co-producer
    Me, co-producer, and translator
    Taylor Gentry, director of photography

    We went up to get some panoramic shots for B-roll. This is a film (gasp) shot that Taylor took. It looks like Instagram. But it’s not. No filter to be had to do this. Just real skillz.

    Topics: Chinese Food | No Comments »

    A photo collage from a reader, Kenneth Cronk

    By Jennifer 8. Lee | December 23, 2010

    The above image was submitted from a reader, Kenneth Cronk.

    I did a photo-collage of one of my favorite Chinese Restaurants called Mee Mah. I mentioned this place in a previous email and you said you had never been there.
    BUT – Isn’t that you I see sitting there? Sitting in front of those two ladies who were in Edward Hopper’s Chop Suey painting?
    So you had been there, eh?

    Ken (the guy who got “addicted” to your Fortune Cookie Chronicles book)

    Topics: Reader Feedback | No Comments »

    The original General Tso’s chicken

    By Jennifer 8. Lee | December 23, 2010

    In all its glory, from Peng’s Agora Garden in Taipei. We filmed it very carefully.

    Topics: Chinese Food, General Tso | No Comments »

    David Mamet On Jews and Chinese Food on Christmas

    By Jennifer 8. Lee | December 22, 2010

    David Mamet scribbled a fun message on behalf of Chinese restaurant owners to Jews, and shared it on Tablet Magazine.

    The Chinese, of course, is non-sensical — but realistic looking, sorta. But otherwise very funny.

    Topics: Chinese Food, Jews & Chinese Food | No Comments »

    Hipster Brooklyn Jewish Deli, Mile End, to Serve Chinese Food on Christmas

    By Jennifer 8. Lee | December 22, 2010


    Mile End Delicatessen, which is famed for its Montreal-style Jewish food (such as smoked meat), is drawing a ream of publicity for its decision to serve Chinese food on Christmas. (It’s of course had its share of press anyway. People love writing about Jewish food).

    They originally announced it on Twitter, “We’re taking reservations for our Traditional Jewish Christmas: Egg drop soup, tongue buns, crispy duck, etc. It’s going to be fun.” And it just exploded. Reservations full, so they are doing another seating at 2 p.m.

    Something fun. They are doing Smoked Meat Fried Rice. Like pastrami fried rice, but the Montreal version. Smoked meat is like a cross between pastrami and corned beef. An alternative path of evolution from New York.

    Interesting in part because I wonder if Canadian Jews have the same tradition as American Jews..

    Topics: Chinese Food, Jews & Chinese Food | No Comments »

    Finding the Chef Behind General Tso’s Chicken with the Documentary

    By Jennifer 8. Lee | December 20, 2010

    We found our way to Peng’s Agora Garden in Taipei, owned by C.K. Peng, the chef behind General Tso’s chicken, who is now 93 and comes into the restaurant. As my book notes, Chef Peng is the person who came up with the name of the dish.

    Here are Ian, Curt and Taylor, setting up the lights in the restaurant.

    Ian is mic-ing up Chef Peng’s son, Chuck, who runs the empire.

    They are diligently filming the making of General Tso’s chicken.

    Here in the chef in the 1970s with the chicken’s biggest fan, Henry Kissinger.

    Topics: Documentary, The Search for General Tso | No Comments »

    Japanese take on American takeout boxes. In City Centre Tokyo.

    By Jennifer 8. Lee | December 18, 2010

    Topics: Chinese Food | No Comments »

    Wear Your Fortunes Around Your Neck! On Etsy.

    By Jennifer 8. Lee | December 17, 2010

    Love these fortune cookie fortune scarves on Etsy for $22. They read “Success is a journey, not a destination,” which is actually a fortune I have on a giant roll I got from Wonton Food.

    Topics: Fortune Cookies | No Comments »

    Hunting for Chicken in Taipei with the Wicked Delicate team

    By Jennifer 8. Lee | December 14, 2010

    I’m working on a documentary on Chinese food with the Wicked Delicate team — Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis — which gained fame with King Corn. We got a $40,000 development grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities [pdf].

    So we headed to Taiwan for our first international shoot. Taylor Gentry, a great cinematographer, joined us. Here are some pictures of us searching for chicken. There have been three chickens harmed in the filming of the documentary already.

    Topics: Chinese Food, Documentary, The Search for General Tso | No Comments »

    Fancy Fortune Cookies deal on Groupon!

    By Jennifer 8. Lee | November 27, 2010

    I was amused to see that Fancy Fortune Cookies is doing a Groupon, $15 for $35 worth of cookies, in various cities. The owner of Fancy Fortune Cookies, Mike Fry, is a former Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus clown who had the vision of selling flavored fortune cookies come to him in a message from God. We ordered the flavored cookie for my 30th birthday party.

    Buy here, and we’ll get a referral code. All proceeds will go to the Asian American Writers Workshop, of which I am the chairperson of the board.

    Topics: Fortune Cookies | No Comments »

    Fortune Cookie Fortune Nightstand

    By Jennifer 8. Lee | November 23, 2010

    In the guest room in Atlanta where I stayed. Total coincidence. The owner had been collecting them since she was young.

    Topics: Fortune Cookies | No Comments »

    Tour of New York City’s Chinatown Street Food

    By Jennifer 8. Lee | October 27, 2010

    As part of a fundraiser for the Asian American Writers Workshop literary festival this year, I am giving walking tours of New York City’s Chinatown street food as part of the Kickstarter project. It’s generally a 2.5 hour tour that is based on one I did for the French Culinary Institute students. It includes Xi’an Famous Foods, Chinatown ice cream factory, Xinjiang skewers, banh mi, pulled noodles. I will offer three dates.

    We have other cool projects as well: such as coffee with a Silicon Valley venture capitalists, a tour of an MTV video shoot, lunch at the Federal Reserve, a manuscript critique by a William Morris Endeavor agent, puzzle lessons from a Sudoku champion, and a signed script from “The Office.”

    Topics: Chinese Food | No Comments »

    95th Birthday Party Favors!

    By Jennifer 8. Lee | October 25, 2010

    Got this lovely email from a reader today. Love that they are being used as party favors. That’s awesome.

    I want to thank you very much for writing your book, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles. I am half-way through the book, but had read enough to be inspired to order 35 copies to give to guests at my father’s 95th birthday celebration this Sunday at, of course, a Chinese restaurant in Cupertino, California. Thanks for writing an excellent history of Chinese restaurants in America. Those of us who are third generation Chinese-American will have a greater appreciation for the Chinese who originally came to America.

    Topics: Chinese Food | No Comments »

    Bilingual Fortune Cookies, in Spanish

    By Jennifer 8. Lee | October 24, 2010

    A reader, Diane Woo, sent in bilingual fortune cookies in English/Spanish. She reports that they encountered these at China Won (aka China Wok), 8109 Fayetteville Road.

    We had Chinese carryout the other day and we got our usual fortune cookies with our order. When we opened the cookies and read the  fortunes, we were surprised to find one side written in English and the other side in Spanish.  We have seen signs written in Spanish on public transportation vehicles, in bathroom reminders for employees to wash their hands, and now it seems that it has made its way to fortune cookies.  Is this a new trend that the  Spanish speaking population is now eating more Chinese food?
    The brand of the fortune cookies is HNSTY. She added, “Strange but we have never seen any Spanish people in this restaurant when we go there.”

    Topics: Chinese Food | No Comments »

    Lovely Email From a Reader

    By Jennifer 8. Lee | October 19, 2010

    I got a lovely email today from a reader. These kinds of notes make my day.

    Dear Ms. Lee,

    I just wanted to take a moment to thank you for writing The Fortune Cookie Chronicles. It touched on many points in my life and even though it’s been years since you finished it I find its relevance continually stunning as I look at my own community transform around me. The paradigms you so meticulously describe are ones to which I feel an innate connection since my family is one of those from Guangzhou who, in the end, passed the restaurant on to someone else. I’m sure you’ve received plenty of these messages from others who grew up through the restaurant system in America. More than once your book deeply affected me as I imagined what my parents’ early days in America must have been like.

    I don’t know if you ever plan on it but if you ever get around to writing something on huaqiao, I’d be interested in reading it.

    Again, thank you for your attention to detail, wit and prose.

    Topics: Chinese Food | No Comments »

    Back-to-back nights at Mission Chinese Food

    By Jennifer 8. Lee | September 22, 2010

    Went to Mission Chinese Food in San Francisco two nights in a row when I was in San Francisco. Upscale Chinese in a downscale setting, which has been getting a lot of attention. It’s cohabitating with Lung Shan, an old school Chinese restaurant. It’s like a hermit crab, living in someone else’s shell, except the other folks are still living there.

    Definitely worth going to. Heavy Sichuan and Western Chinese influence. Lots of cumin, lamb, coriander and hot peppers. Very fresh. Justin Osofsky (who was a national high school debate champion, I remembered recently) mentioned it to me.

    Here is the storefront, not worth looking at.

    Inside they have a Christmas light decor thing going. Which is interesting. I kind of like doing lights like that at home. It’s great also, we were always able to get a table.

    A vegan mushroom wonton soup in miso.  $5 for four wontons. My friend loved it so much, she ordered two.

    Lamb + greens + Shanghai noodle and coriander. “Tingly lamb noodle soup.” Not sure where the tingle was supposed to come from, but it was very good.

    Fried chicken wings buried in peppers and jalepenos. Not availble for delivery, not sure why. Maybe they grow soggy.

    Sizzling cumin lamb with stream beans. The first shots of this were foggy beause of all the sizzling steam. Would have preferred the onions to be cooked more to bring out that oniony goodness.

    Char siu pork belly with noodles. Preferred the second night when they did a crispy thing to the skin. (more coriander!)

    Danny Bowien, one of the chefs and co-founder. From Oklahoma originally. Not Chinese, Korean adoptee.

    Ma po tofu. Very nice and fresh.

    Beef cheek. Slow cooked. Totally never knew what I was missing. Why isn’t there more beef cheek used in cooking?

    I assume this was the tiger salad with seaweed and peashoots we ordered, though the description had nothing about the summer roll-style skins. (The coriander continues its hegemonic role)

    Cold tofu with a lot going on. White beans on top were eh.

    Anthony Myint, other founder.

    Topics: Chinese Food | No Comments »

    Susan Lehman Named New Publisher of Twelve

    By Jennifer 8. Lee | September 15, 2010

    My imprint at Hachette, Twelve, just named its new publisher: Susan Lehman from the NYU Brennan Cnter. Julie Bosman did a cover piece in The New York Times on the announcement.

    Here is the note from Jamie Raab, VP at Hachette.

    I am delighted to announce that Susan Lehman will be joining us as Publisher/Editor in Chief of

    Twelve.

    Over the summer, I thought long and hard about how to fill this role. It became clear to me that the unique vision for Twelve demanded that whomever took over as Publisher needed not only to have a driving passion for books and writers, but a very fresh and invigorating approach to our business. When I met Susan, I knew I’d found just the right person to uphold the imprint’s tradition of high editorial standards and focused and aggressive advocacy for each book published. I also loved the fact that she comes to the job with a background that speaks to her curiosity and multi-dimensional talent. She is a breath of fresh air and I feel confident that as you get to know her, you, too, will be impressed by her taste and her commitment. Twelve’s associate publisher Cary Goldstein shares my excitement about Susan’s appointment, and with Cary and Susan leading the charge, I feel confident that Twelve will continue to be one of our industry’s most dynamic imprints.

    I have attached a press release with more details.

    For those of you who know Susan, I hope you will give her a warm welcome back into book publishing. For those who have not yet had the pleasure of meeting her, you’re in for a treat. Susan’s first day on the job will be September 27th. Once she settles in, she will be reaching out to you and I know she is looking forward to building on the list’s remarkable record of success.

    All best,

    Jamie Raab
    Executive Vice President and Publisher
    Grand Central Publishing

    Topics: Twelve | No Comments »

    Haozhan in London: Modern Chinese with Flair

    By Jennifer 8. Lee | August 29, 2010

    Haozhan was not open when I first went looking for the greatest Chinese restaurants in the world.
    Here is a pdf copy of its menu. And a sampling of the dishes we orderd.

    Topics: Chinese Food | No Comments »

    Portuguese egg tart, the predecessor of the Cantonese 蛋撻?

    By Jennifer 8. Lee | August 26, 2010

    I was in Penang, Malaysia when I saw the Portugese egg tart, also known as pastel de nata, at a local dessert chain called Maxim’s. These are theorized to be an inspiration for the Cantonese egg tart, called dan ta (蛋撻), as they got to Hong Kong via Macau, a Portugese colony when the Portugese egg tarts are still served.  So I was excited to try them finally — as you don’t come across a lot of Portugese egg tarts in New York City.

    My verdict: It’s much more eggy and has a thicker richer crust than the dan ta. It’s definitely a “heavier experience.”

    Topics: Chinese Food | No Comments »

    A Peek at the Menu at the New Majestic Restaurant in Singapore

    By Jennifer 8. Lee | August 20, 2010

    I paid another visit to The New Majestic, one of the restaurants I visited in my quest for the greatest Chinese restaurant in the world. We went there with Don and Laura, freshly married folks. When I visited in 2006, it had just opened. It continues. Lots of high-end ingredients (shark fin, abalone etc.) and modern twists — wasabi, foie gras, etc.

    Very pricey. But very good. Though is it 50x as good as your local hawker meal? Probably not. But different.

    Soft shelled crab with a creamy wasabi lime sauce + mango.

    Combination of crispy wasabi prawn, peking duck and
    pan-seared foie gras.

    more »

    Topics: Best Chinese Restaurants Around the World, Chinese Food, Chinese Restaurants | No Comments »

    Chinese Restaurants circa 1100 AD in the Khmer empire?

    By Jennifer 8. Lee | August 16, 2010

    Chinese restaurants have a long history. And perhaps one of the earliest recorded instances are found on the walls of the Bayon Temple within the Angor Thom complex in Cambodia (It’s one of the complexes within the Angor Wat area). Bayon was built in the late 1100s or early 1200s century as the official state temple of the Mahayana Buddhist King Jayavarman VII. The carvings capture many elements of daily life of the Khmer empire around that era — including marketings, cock fighting, wrestling, and Chinese restaurants. Below is a market scene with a merchant who is selling fish.

    The Chinese had a long history of being in Cambodia dating back to the 900s AD (the most famous account of Cambodian life is from Zhou Daguan, a Chinese emissary that went to Cambodia around 1296 and recorded his tale). The Chinese presence is captured in the carvings at Bayon.

    The Chinese look distinctive from the Khmer in that they  beards, short earlobes and thin lips. In contrast, the native Khmer are depicted with long earlobes, thick lips and no beards. Several scenes show Chinese warriors fighting alongside the Khmer against their mortal enemies, the Cham. (Tour guide said Chinese people always get excited when they see that). Below is a cockfighting scene, note the differences between the Khmer on the left and the Chinese on the right.

    There are a number of places along the wall where the Chinese appear. Here is an example where they appear to be in battle.

    But one of the scenes distinctly shows Chinese people cooking under a roof — a Chinese restaurant. You can see the Chinese faces cooking in pots and then other Chinese, customers presumably.

    I had heard about these carvings in my research for the book, but had not seen them until now.

    It’s funny listening to the tour guides go by talking about that scene in all different languages. “Restaurante Chino,” “Restaurant Chinois,” etc. and all the tourists nod in understanding because Chinese restaurants are everywhere.

    Topics: Chinese Food, Chinese Restaurants | No Comments »

    Is there a connection between the Dutch and the Japanese fortune cookies?

    By Jennifer 8. Lee | August 15, 2010

    I went to the National Museum of Singapore, and spotted these Dutch “pancake grills” that carry an incredibly strong resemblance to the Japanese kata that were used to make the original fortune cookies. It made me wonder if there was a Dutch influence to the original fortune cookies.

    The cookies made here seemed to be flat (not curved into fortune cookie shape), though very ornate.

    It was part of a larger display about all the cakes, cookies and confectionaries that were available in Singapore once upon a time in an ongoing food exhibit.

    Lest you think the connection is a bit nutty, you should remember that tempura came to Japan via Portugal, the missionaries, in the 1500s or so.

    Topics: Chinese Food | No Comments »

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