Saturday, April 12, 2008

The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food

I was intrigued by this book when I read a glowing review of it on Yahoo news, and was able to finish it over several hours sitting in the local bookstore. Much like a fine Chinese meal, the Fortune Cookie Chronicles is fairly light, quite tasty, and in the end both filling and fulfilling. Because the book is so well written, it's a lot of fun and you'll learn more than you could have ever imagined about Chinese food in the United States (as well as elsewhere), something many of us -- myself included -- have long taken for granted.

The book traces the incredible history of Chinese food in the United States, with the author setting out to explore why it is so popular across the country. Along the way she is able to spin delicious yarns on such topics as the birth of General Tso's chicken (including a hilarious trip to the General's home town in rural China where absolutely no one has ever heard of the dish), the Japanese origins of the fortune cookie, the reasons for the Jewish love of Chinese cuisine, how human smuggling supplies the many thousands of Chinese workers who run Chinese restaurants across the country, and other areas.

One of the most fascinating things I learned from the book is that the Chinese food we all know and love barely resembles real Chinese food -- the type of food people eat in China. In traveling to China to sample and research food and culture across the large nation, the author herself was initially surprised by this, and as the book progresses the fact helps demonstrate how the development of Chinese(/American) food is symbolic of the broader change to the culture of Chinese people who have moved to and settled their families in America.

Indeed, more than being about the strange growth and metamorphosis of Chinese dishes in the U.S., this book is about how America has impacted Chinese-American culture and vice versa. The fact that Chinese dishes have been altered in order to fit the tastes of Americans reflects how many Chinese-American citizens, the author included, have culturally changed from their own parents and grandparents. While many Chinese-American dishes beloved here are totally unknown abroad -- and often even disliked by Chinese people in the Far East; such as General Tso's chicken -- their popularity has spawned the worldwide creation of a unique amalgam of cuisine that is both Chinese and American and not solely representative of either group alone (the brief section on P.F. Chang's as a form of upscale American-Chinese food is fascinating and exactly on point of this phenomenon). Furthermore, as the book shows, the popularity of Chinese food in the U.S. spreads across all of the states, cultures, ethnicities, and religions. The author does a fantastic job of dissecting the sheer love of Chinese food in all 50 states, and the history behind that astonishing popularity.

Upon finishing I was somewhat amazed that someone could have spent so much time and effort researching Chinese food, but it is clear that the author -- Jennifer 8. Lee of the New York Times -- has a passion for the subject, as well as an interest in exploring her own identity as a Chinese-American. Admittedly, while I read the Times every single day and have long noticed Ms. Lee's byline, all I could remember about her work was her cool middle name (perhaps the neatest middle initial and name since Harry S Truman). I will look out for her more now, as she is a superb writer and able to speak with a witty and lively prose. I am sure her future books will be equally as compelling.

If I can make a small complaint about the book, it probably goes on for a bit too long, ending at just under 300 pages. While this does not seem like much, I think the author could have cut a lot of the material that was included in the later chapters. Nevertheless, this is still a fun book to read, and a good gift.

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