The Chinese Food Diaspora

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By Christine Y. Chen,
a contributing writer at Foreign Policy magazine
Wednesday, April 9, 2008

THE FORTUNE COOKIE CHRONICLES

Adventures in the World of Chinese Food

By Jennifer 8. Lee

Twelve. 307 pp. $24.99

When the Chinese greet their friends, it's rarely with a simple "hello" or "how are you?" Instead, their first words are: "Ni chi fan le ma?" or, "Have you eaten yet?" In Chinese culture, food doesn't exist merely for physical nourishment; it's fundamental to social interactions and relationships. In other words, food is necessary for the body and for the soul.

It's a maxim that Jennifer 8. Lee, author of "The Fortune Cookie Chronicles," knows well. (Her middle "number," by the way, connotes prosperity to the Chinese.) "The vocabulary words that Chinese-American kids . . . know best," she writes, "are almost always related to food." In her engaging first book, Lee, an American born to Chinese immigrant parents, puts that food-related vocabulary to good use by embarking on a three-year journey across six continents, 23 countries and 42 states to discover how and why Chinese cuisine became ubiquitous. After all, as Lee notes, "There are some forty thousand Chinese restaurants in the United States -- more than the number of McDonald's, Burger Kings, and KFCs combined."

Lee travels wide and digs deep to unearth the answers to several burning questions: Where do fortune cookies come from? (Originally from Japan.) What is chop suey? (A sweet, saucy mishmash of vegetables and meat designed to appeal to American palates.) And why is Chinese food the chosen food of the chosen people? (It is relatively easy to make kosher; Manhattan's traditionally Jewish Lower East Side is adjacent to Chinatown; and, well, Chinese food tastes good.)

Lee's day job as a reporter at the New York Times serves her well; she's clearly done some meticulous homework. She traverses the country to hunt down dozens of winners of a 2005 Powerball lottery, each of whom chose the lucky number from a fortune cookie. She finds a village outside Kyoto, Japan, where bakeries have been making fortune cookies since the 19th century. She even finds the New York woman responsible for the proliferation of restaurant menus in apartment lobbies, comparing her marketing efforts to e-mail spam.

Reading Lee's book is almost like watching a documentary travelogue. From all-you-can-eat buffets in Kansas to the small southern Chinese village of Jietoupu, where she tracks down descendants of General Tso (who, natch, have never heard of, seen or tasted their forefather's infamous chicken dish), the author takes readers by the hand and brings them on her adventure. You can picture yourself standing next to Lee as she visits a San Francisco fortune cookie company, where she observes that "day after day, two elderly Chinese women fold hot fortune cookie wafers, their fingertips toughened by years of sticky heat. They each sit next to a fortune cookie machine, and the scene is strictly Willy Wonka meets Dickens: spigots squirt out circles of batter, which are then whisked on a conveyor belt into a dark tunnel lit by blue gas flames."

Where Lee really shines, though, is in describing the people who have cooked, served and delivered America's favorite cuisine. "The Fortune Cookie Chronicles" isn't just about the popularization of Chinese food; it's also a story of Chinese immigrants in America. Lee not only traces the history of 19th-century Chinese railroad workers and what they ate and cooked, she also tells the tale of the Golden Venture, a ship full of 286 illegal immigrants that ran aground in Queens, N.Y., in 1993. Most of the immigrants were restaurant workers from Fujian province, looking for a better life in America, only to find red tape and prison awaiting them. "There is a fairly good chance that the Chinese restaurant worker who cooked your roast pork fried rice, or the woman who took your order on the phone, or the deliveryman who showed up at your door paid tens of thousands of dollars for the privilege of doing so."

Lee's stories of immigrant survival and ingenuity are so moving that it seems like nitpicking to complain about the book's biggest weakness: The subtitle, "Adventures in the World of Chinese Food," is misleading. "The Fortune Cookie Chronicles" is not really about the world of Chinese food but rather is an anthropological study of its popularization in the United States. It's true that Lee describes her travels from Dubai to Paris to find the greatest Chinese restaurant in the world. But the chapter simply reads like a laundry list of Great Meals I Have Eaten and does little except inspire frequent-flier-mileage envy and demonstrate that good Chinese food can be found anywhere. The topic of the "glocalization" -- global localization -- of Chinese food, which Lee only touches upon, could easily fill the pages of another book. Indeed, finishing "The Fortune Cookie Chronicles" was like polishing off a good Chinese meal. I was nourished and satisfied, but an hour later I was hungry for more.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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