When I was growing up in Brooklyn, going out to eat meant going out for Chinese.
Moo shu, chow mein, kung pao -- these exotic-sounding words gradually became part of my vocabulary, just as they became recognizable all over the United States. The dishes themselves did not really taste so foreign, once I mastered my chopsticks. I found them appealing and even comforting. Savvy Chinese restaurateurs, I realized only later, knew how to strike just the right balance between new and familiar, not to mention affordable. No wonder Chinese restaurants are so popular in the United States, now more numerous than McDonald’s, Burger Kings and KFCs combined.
As Jennifer 8. Lee observes in “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles,” her engaging, funny voyage into understanding Chinese food, what is served in Chinese restaurants is actually quite American. That is not an insult or a put-down but a culinary and cultural fact. It is a common illusion that when we go out to eat Thai or Mexican or Italian, we sample fare neatly transplanted from another culture. Instead, as Lee shows, we usually get an amalgam: an idea that sprouted in one place, flavored by improvisation or fluke.
In a glorious example, Lee searches out the origin of General Tso’s chicken, without which no Chinese menu in the U.S. is complete. Succulent, crispy-fried chicken in a tangy sauce with garlic and ginger, it is now considered a signature Chinese dish. Lee went to General Tso’s hometown in Hunan province but found that no chef there had even heard of it. In fact, General Tso’s chicken is not eaten anywhere in China. Lee followed tips to Taiwan and then back to New York, where intense competition between two cooks in competing restaurants in the 1970s yielded the dish.
Unlocking the biggest mystery -- where fortune cookies came from -- required even greater persistence and ingenuity. Lee is equal to the task, and then some. With her cultural background as a Chinese American, her craft as a reporter for the New York Times, her evident love of food and her quirky sense of wonder, Lee is our trusted guide. And although I don’t want to spoil the surprise, let me just say that she finds the origin of fortune cookies in about the last place you would suspect.
In short, Chinese food is now a significant part of American culture.
“Our benchmark for American-ness is apple pie,” Lee writes. “But ask yourself: How often do you eat apple pie? How often do you eat Chinese food?”
“The Fortune Cookie Chronicles” is a deeply enjoyable meal, for anyone who likes talking or thinking about food. One chapter recounts the paper menu wars that plagued the Upper West Side of Manhattan in the 1980s, started by Misa Chang, whose Empire Szechwan Restaurant at 97th Street and Broadway became a legend. Another explains the unending supply of poorly paid Chinese restaurant workers, most of whom are illegal immigrants from Fujian province, who pay amazing sums of money to endure a horrific ocean journey that can take months.
More than anything, Lee’s book demonstrates that the true melting pot of America is its food. The daily goal of gastronomy isn’t to replicate how food tastes in another country but to appreciate life in the here and now. She slaps down food writers who pursue “authentic” foreign cuisine, as though loyalty to a specific tradition defines quality. “ ‘Authenticity’ is a concept that food snobs propagate, not one that reflects how people really cook and eat on a daily basis,” writes Lee. “Improvisation and adaptation have defined cuisine throughout history.”
And it’s not just Chinese. As Lee points out, the tempura we expect in every Japanese restaurant actually came to Japan from Portuguese missionaries in the 16th century. Potatoes, that Irish staple, went across the Atlantic from the New World in the 1700s. “At a certain point, that which is exotic stops being so,” she concludes. “It becomes, in a new way, ‘authentic’ to its new home.”
Toward the end of her book, Lee writes that she began researching it as a quest to understand Chinese food and wound up on a personal journey to understand herself. Her sense of self is clearly tied to eating consciously and writing about it thoughtfully. I only wish she had let us get to know her and what she learned about herself along the way. I could not be sure by the end of her book, for instance, whether Lee is an obsessive person, or a relaxed one. In a personal journey, we want a reporter’s guard dropped a little.
But no matter. Lee’s byline merits watching in the New York Times, and not just because of her unusual middle name, “8.” (In Chinese, the number 8 is a homonym for “get rich,” and considered lucky; she evidently got her sense of humor from her parents.) She is a bright cookie, and telling her fortune will doubtless include more intriguing books to come.