- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 31, 2008

ADVENTURES IN THE WORLD OF CHINESE FOOD

By Jennifer 8. Lee

Twelve Hachette Book Group, $24.99, 307 pages

REVIEWED BY CORINNA LOTHAR

Jennifer 8. Lee (8 really is her middle name; when pronounced in Chinese the number denotes prosperity) is a special kind of journalist. She writes with a delicious sense of humor and irony, following her story over hill and dale, ocean and mountain, from town to village. With wit and style, she delights with tales about Chinese food in America, and its sometimes hilarious origins.

The “Fortune Cookie Chronicles,” subtitled “Adventures in the World of Chinese Food,” begins with intrigue. Was it fraud or happenstance that made it possible for the numbers drawn in a Powerball lottery to disclose so many winners? The answer lies within the fortune cookies.

In her quest to find the origin, among other dishes, of Chinese fortune cookies (they’re Japanese, in fact), Ms. Lee traveled thousands of miles throughout the United States, China, Taiwan and Europe. She ate at dozens, if not hundreds, of Chinese restaurants, interviewed chefs, met businessmen and restaurant owners and made friends with villagers.

Miss Lee discovered that most of those small packets of soy sauce given away with take-out orders are manufactured by a company called Kari-Out, and unlike the product of Asian soy sauce companies, Kari-Out’s packets don’t contain soy, but a mysterious substance unknown in China.”It’s like the difference between vanilla and vanilla extract made from vanilla beans, or real mayonnaise versus the mysterious coagulated substance called Miracle Whip.” General Tso’s chicken is virtually unknown in China but there was a real 19th-century general named Tso in Hunan Province who was involved “in the bloodiest civil war in human history” but his “long march across China” did not explain how “his long march across America c[a]me to pass.” Here in America “General Tso, like Colonel Sanders, is known for chicken, not war. In China, he is known for war, not chicken.”

Miss Lee adds social and cultural history to the culinary story of Chinese-American cuisine, seasoning them well with personal anecdotes. Whether she is describing how one woman started the concept of take-out food by slipping menus under apartment doors in Manhattan when business in her restaurant began to fail, or discussing the treatment of Chinese workers, or telling of the travails of one young Chinese family from New York who buy a restaurant in Hiawassee, Ga., Miss Lee has a reporter’s ear for nuance and eye for detail and a novelist’s empathy for the characters who populate her story. Everything is documented with notes and a bibliography. She has an unexpectedly exciting story to tell and the reader learns not only about what is served in Chinese restaurants and why, but also about the people who have made Chinese food ubiquitous in America and throughout the world.

Jennifer Lee is the daughter of Chinese immigrants, a Harvard graduate and a reporter for the New York Times. She grew up eating her mother’s authentic dishes in New York, but relishing the American-style Chinese food she discovered in Manhattan restaurants. A fluent Mandarin speaker, she was able to converse with people all over China in her quest for authenticity.

During the 19th century, “waves of Chinese continued to wash up on the shores” of the United States. For example, in the 1870s, one third of the population of what is now Idaho was Chinese, but the Chinese were not popular, and as Miss Lee points out, “[t]he embers of culinary xenophobia smoldered.” In the effort of white workers to stop the influx of the Chinese, “they littered the coast from Los Angeles to Tacoma, Washington, with the dead bodies of Chinese men.” The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 “restricted Chinese immigration and prevented Chinese arrivals from becoming naturalized citizens. It would be the only law in American history to exclude a group by race or ethnicity.” Having been driven from agriculture, mining and manufacturing, the Chinese turned to laundry and restaurant work. “Cleaning and cooking were both women’s work. They were not threatening to white laborers,” says Miss Lee. The Chinese continued to arrive, many illegally brought over at great cost to the family left behind, and transported by “snakeheads,” as the smugglers were called.

In New York, a network was established with buses taking newly arrived workers to restaurants throughout the country. The “Chinese bus” running between Washington and New York, popular with everyone looking for an inexpensive ride, was designed originally for transporting Chinese looking for restaurant jobs.

“The driving force behind Chinese cooking is the desire to adapt and incorporate indigenous ingredients and utilize Chinese cooking techniques… . Chinese cooking is not a set of dishes. It is a philosophy that serves local tastes and ingredients,” explains Tommy Wong, one of five brothers who own a restaurant outside New Orleans where Szechuan alligator and soy-vinegar crawfish are served. Chinese food is eaten all over the world - even in Antarctica, “where Monday is usually Chinese-food night at McMurdo Station.” But chefs and restauranteurs have adapted Chinese cuisine to the local tastes. Miss Lee, looking for the world’s best restaurant, points out that only in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco can authentic food be found in Chinese restaurants catering to Chinese people.

Apart from the history behind certain dishes and the evolution of Chinese restaurants in the United States, the book is sprinkled with delightful anecdotes, such as the story of the Chinese deliveryman - a dangerous occupation in New York - who disappeared after delivering an order. He wasn’t murdered as everyone feared, but stuck in a malfunctioning elevator for several days, unfortunately after he had delivered his order, leaving him without nourishment and making the hapless young man to whom he had delivered the food the prime suspect for murder. There’s scandal, too, when a shortage of kosher ducks from Long Island resulted in non-kosher ducks being sold as substitutes.

In Kaifeng, China, where Chinese Jews appeared about 1,000 years ago, Miss Lee visited an old Jewish woman. She asked the woman why Jews in America are so fond of Chinese food. “With a glint in her eye, she slapped the wooden table. She knew. Her Buddhist koanlike response was profound in its simplicity: ‘Because Chinese food tastes good.’”

Like the sweet, crunchy fortune cookie itself, the author’s passion has cracked open the story of Chinese food in this country and of the people who have made it possible for all of us to enjoy it.

Corinna Lothar is a writer and critic in Washington.

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