Friday, July 22, 2011

Book Bite: The Fortune Cookie Chronicles (Jennifer 8. Lee)

Did you know that there are more Chinese restaurants in America than there are McDonalds, Burger Kings and Wendys combined? I came across this little tidbit in a recent episode of 'Who Knew?', a five-days-weekly news roundup produced by Yahoo! News. Yes, it's true, I'm addicted to Who Knew? (if you haven't seen it, you should - it may not be 'real' news, but it will make you endlessly popular at party trivia games) , but I'm also addicted to Chinese food. It's easily my favorite ethnic food, and Matt knows that if we're ever looking for a place to eat, I'm going to suggest Chinese.

Of course, if my more well-traveled friends and family are to be believed, the Chinese food we eat here in the United States has very little in common with what's on the plates of millions of people across China. Chop suey, for example, is a wholly American creation, and everyone's favorite General Tso's Chicken is only very loosely based on a dish from Hunan Province. Even the ubiquitous fortune cookie is not what it seems - it hit the mainstream in California and is thought to be based on a Japanese confection.

These tasty tidbits, and a host of other revelations, make up the meat (no pun intended!) of Jennifer 8. Lee's fascinating look at the Chinese restaurant industry, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles. A reporter for the New York Times, Lee takes her natural curiosity and investigative reporting skills on the road to answer our questions about Chinese food in America and learn little more about her identity as a Chinese American along the way. From California, to New York City, to China and beyond, Lee shares her findings through a mix of careful research and personal anecdotes, and solves some of Chinese cuisine's most enduring mysteries, including:

Who write the messages in fortune cookies?
Who is General Tso and why are we eating his chicken?
Where do all the Chinese restaurant workers come from?
Who popularized the concept of Chinese delivery?
What is the greatest Chinese restaurant in the world (outside Greater China, of course)?
Why do Jews eat Chinese food on Christmas? (or, as Lee cleverly puts it, "Why is chow mein the chosen food of the chosen people?")

This is just a selection of the topics Lee tackles in her entertaining and enlightening book. It's been a few months since I read it, but I remember hardly wanting to put it down. I was constantly regaling Matt with trivia from the world of Chinese food and promptly devoured the entire book within a couple of days. If you've ever taken an interest in the stories behind the things we eat, you'll find this book a fascinating read - even if you aren't a fan of egg rolls, chow mein or wonton soup. For those who love this hybrid cuisine as much as I, Lee's book is a sheer delight!

Check out this link at USA Today for an excerpt - if that whets your appetite, buy the book!

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