Before I went vegetarian a decade ago, I could be found at our local Chinese restaurant's buffet, or at the Chinese fast-food equivalent at local malls. I was a fan of crab rangoon, lemon chicken, sesame chicken, crispy fried noodles, beef and broccoli, sweet and sour chicken, eggrolls, and fried rice (these days, my "splurge" at Chinese restaurants is a bowl of steamed brown rice). When I heard about Jennifer 8. Lee's The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, I had to read up on the origins of "Chinese" food as sold in America.
I wasn't a complete newcomer; I knew, for example, that fortune cookies originated in Japan, not China, and my experiences with a Chinese dormmate in Quebec showed me that traditional Chinese food was light years away from its American (and Canadian) counterparts (the giveaway was the frog legs on the Chinese buffet in Quebec). I found my Chinese friend cutting up a whole chicken in the dorm kitchen, boiling it and complaining that Americans (and Canadians by default) didn't understand "real Chinese food." Fair enough.
Lee's fascinating detective work traces the origins of classic dishes such as General Tso's Chicken (yes, there really was a General Tso, but his "chicken" is purely American) all the way to China. Hint: Chinese do not deep fry large chunks of meat and slather them in mysterious, gooey sauces loaded with MSG and corn syrup. Nor do they ornament everything with broccoli. She also discusses the origins of P.F. Chang, Panda Express, and the several American businesses that exist solely to prepare strangely soyless soy sauce and carryout containers.
She chronicles the creation of the far-flung empire of Chinese restaurants that have conquered the globe, and even searches out the "greatest Chinese restaurant in the world," traveling to Dubai, Mauritius, London, Tokyo, Singapore, Paris, Australia, Peru, Canada, the US, and Brazil in search of the perfect combination of authentic food and an authentic Chinese dining experience.
I found it curious that in light of the numerous recalls regarding toxic Chinese products, including tainted / poisonous produce, meat and medicines, that Lee fails to mention if this stigma affects imports of Chinese foodstuffs, or of Americans' opinions towards Chinese-owned establishments have changed. The Fortune Cookie Chronicles made an interesting counterpoint to A Year Without "Made in China": One Family's True Life Adventure in the Global Economy.
Lee's insider status (the child of Chinese immigrants, she is fluent in Mandarin and was raised on both her mother's traditional Chinese cooking as well as American Chinese) allows her unprecedented access to the mysterious world of Chinese restaurants, with their rituals of buying and selling, procurement, and recruiting, as well as to poll Chinese on their opinions of what real Chinese food consists of (and their opinions of American Chinese food such as General Tso's Chicken). Her Chinese also allows her an interview with one of China's last Jews of Kaifeng.
Another fascinating sidenote is the devotion of two chapters to kosher Chinese food, and some of the scandals that surrounded a high-profile case (the Great Kosher Duck Scandal of 1989). (My own personal view of Chinese at Christmas will forever be cemented by the classic (and non-PC) ending of A Christmas Story (Two-Disc Special Edition)).
Most heartbreaking were the stories of illegal immigration from China's Fuijan region and Fuzhou city. Families were torn apart by hazardous human smuggling at an exorbitant cost (according to Lee, the price in 2006 was upwards of $70,000 a person). Once landed in the US (assuming they evaded immigration authorities), they gravitated towards Chinese restaurant jobs that didn't require them to know English, working 12-hour days to send home money in order to send for their families, who would become trapped in the same cycle. Their children (whose English was much more advanced) would then be the "face" of the restaurant, responsible for phone orders, dealing with vendors and repairmen, and waiting tables. Older immigrants who failed to master English and who immigrated illegally are trapped in the Chinese restaurant world, with a black-and-white worldview limited to how far a city was via bus from NYC. Chinese deliverymen are routinely subjected to violent holdups, even murder (Lee devotes a chapter to a high-profile case where a Chinese deliveryman went missing in NYC).
All in all, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles was a fascinating read that lovingly traces the origins and evolution of Chinese food on an American (and international) scale, including the human costs involved in starting and running Chinese restaurants.
`The Fortune Cookie Chronicles' is a really interesting read; a mixture of social history; personal anecdotes; food appreciation and a personal quest to find out where fortune cookies originated. Each chapter deals with a different aspect of Chinese-American culture (and this book does reflect a very American view of Chinese culture and food rather than a British one.) The book covers such diverse subjects as: -The Kosher duck crisis of 1989 (I never realised that Jewish people and the Chinese had such an affinity) - The origins of take-away food - The people who write the fortunes that go inside the cookies (and why Yoda has taken the place of Confucius!) - Illegal Chinese immigration to the US - Rows about soy sauce - How there were a record amount of lottery winners after people had played the 'lucky numbers' inside their cookies - the origins of those fabulous American take-out boxes And how people who are culturally Chinese adapt to a western way of life.
I learned a lot through reading this book, although I would say that some of the chapters drag a little. Overall though an entertaining and unusual read
Jennifer Lee answers many mysteries in this book that may have interested you. (Where do all those Chinese people come from who work in the restaurants? How did fortune cookies get started? Who writes the fortunes? What is the real origin of Chop Suey?) For those answers, it's worth reading the book.
Her lens is a most unusual one: She visits Chinese restaurants where lottery winners got fortunes that gave them the numbers they used to win an unprecedented number of second prizes.
What she learns is that Chinese food as prepared and eaten in the United States says more about Americans than it does about the Chinese. She also shows how self-organizing principles (from complexity theory) apply to explain why Chinese restaurants are so similar.
Ultimately, this book describes what it means to be human and to want a better life. In that sense, it's very life affirming.
I found that the book had two major drawbacks. First, Ms. Lee chooses to tell you the story of how she tracked down her answers rather than cutting through the preliminaries. I found much of her research reporting to be less interesting than the punch lines when finally reached.
Second, I wondered how competent she was in doing this research. She seemed to rely a lot on interviewing people face to face. Surely, a lot of answers could have been gotten in other ways. Where I became most skeptical was in her section on picking the best Chinese restaurant in the world. One of her criteria was that lots of Chinese people eat there. I have Chinese-American friends who take me to many superb, attractive (as opposed to "hole in the wall") Chinese restaurants where my wife and I are the only non-Chinese Americans in the place. None of these restaurants were mentioned by Ms. Lee. She didn't even visit the cities where our favorite Chinese restaurants are such as Honolulu.
This book was a disappointment. I heard a review of it on a radio food programme. As a result I was expecting a book that described Chinatowns and restaurants from around the world. However the book is mostly about chinese-style catering in the United States and people smuggling from the east into the US. The anecdotes about how the migrants worked hard to open restaurants were sometimes interesting but rather repetitive. The overall picture was of chronic bastardisation of chinese recipes and techniques to meet American tastes. Dishes unheard of in the UK like General Tso's Chicken are, it seems, universal in the US. The author discovered that it is a chinese dish, but it became unrecognisable when cooked in the US. Unsurprisingly it is sweet and crisp there, rather than savoury. I was quite shocked, but probably not surprised, to discover that the soy sauce produced in the US is just a factory, chemical, fake product with no fermented soy in it at all. There is a section about restaurants around the world at the end but it gives little useful information. It is true that the fortune cookie is a theme that runs through the book and is an interesting story. Lee has followed up this and a few other threads systematically. It turns out that mass migration using people smugglers is not a new story, and the stories Lee tells about that are also interesting. That is why I have given three stars. Initially I had intended two.