Tasty Travel Tuesday
By Brette Sember
Chinese New Year is January 23 this year, and brings in the year of the dragon, which sounds bold and flavorful like Szechuan Chinese food. What better time to explore China and think about whether American Chinese food is in fact Chinese at all. Jennifer 8. Lee does just this in The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, one of the most in-depth, well-researched food history books to be found. It’s also simply a lot of fun because Lee takes the reader on a journey not only across the U.S. and China, but to many other parts of the world as she tackles three main questions.
- Is Chinese food from China and what is the history of American Chinese food?
- Where did the fortune cookie come from?
- And where is the best Chinese restaurant in the world?
Lee details her experiences as she travels through tiny villages and big cities in China (which she makes incredibly real – you can see and smell where she takes you), searching for the roots of the food we in America call Chinese. One of the most fascinating portions is when she seeks out the origins of General Tso’s Chicken. It turns out there was a General Tso and Lee visits his home village where she learns about what the general liked to eat and even has the dish prepared for her there, only to find it is not the same in the least. She shows the reader that nearly everything we think of as Chinese food and even Chinese traditions are American creations (in fact, she shares that most American Chinese restaurants have two menus – one for the American customers and one for the workers and other Chinese immigrants, “real” Chinese food Americans would like not take well to.)
I was fascinated also by her behind-the-scenes look at the workers in Chinese restaurants, who are part of an almost underground network and travel across the country on special buses. She also takes the reader on the journey of a Chinese immigrant who is coming to America to work. And PF Chang’s? It’s not Chinese at all and in fact Chinese people would never eat there because the huge warrior statues are traditional in graveyards and no one would ever eat near one.
Other fun stories unfold as she explores the origin of chop suey (which in Chinese literally means “odds and ends” and was never meant as an actual name of a dish, just as a description of something someone made) and also the history of Chinese take out as well as the great kosher duck debacle that deeply affected the Jewish community’s relationship with Chinese restaurants.
When tackling the fortune cookie, Lee investigates its roots in California where Chinese immigrants landed and uncovers an actual court case over its origins. The conversations Lee has with the people with first hand memories of the story are transforming. She visits a fortune cookie factory in San Francisco (I’ve actually been there and it is as Lee describes, a closet of a room off a dark alley in Chinatown) and describes the way people use the fortunes in the cookies to pick lottery tickets, which resulted in a statistical improbability.
Around the World with 8. Lee
As if all the globetrotting Lee did to explore Chinese food across America and its origins in China were not enough, she undertakes to find the best Chinese restaurant in the world (outside of China) and goes to Peru, France, Singapore, England, Japan, Australia, Dubai, Korea, Canada, Brazil, Jamaica, Iran, Maritus, and India (carefully sharing her experiences and impressions). Her conclusion will surprise you, but I’ll let you take the journey with her yourself.
Brette Sember is a monthly contributor to A Traveler’s Library, bringing together her love of travel and of food. See more about her and how to get in touch with her on the Contributor’s Page.
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