Friday, January 04, 2013

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

The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food
Jennifer 8. Lee

“There are some forty thousand Chinese restaurants in the United States—more than the number of MacDonald’s, Burger Kings, and KFCs combined.” So begins The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, with an eye opener, a mind opener. And the cookies keep open sesamie-ing throughout the book, as Lee’s gliding prose challenges and expands our notions of Chinese cuisine.

In Fortune you’ll find, as you might expect, the origins of the cookie (no, it’s not Chinese, or American, or Chinese American). Expanding outward, you’ll discover the endless varieties of Chinese food from around the world, from Cajun Chinese (Szechuan alligator, anyone?) to Mauritian (sweet-sour lobster) to Philly (cheesesteak eggrolls). But what, you may wonder, is real Chinese food? Somewhat hard to say exactly as even the authentic thing has an age-old propensity for innovation. Suffice it to say that it typically has these hallmarks: it looks like an animal, it’s transparent or even semi-transparent (i.e. jellyfish and fungus) it can be black (seaweed or black mushrooms) or white (steamed buns) and it has bones (shrimp in the shells, whole fish, bird’s feet). All of these things were taken out by 19th Century Chinese immigrants to win over Americans. Thus we have Chinese American food, which never existed in China (but probably does now in go-go America-loving China). Like the original, it can be tasty, too, and there’s not an absolutely hard line between the real thing and the American version. For the record, Birmingham has had real thing restaurants for many years but, as in all American cities, the Chinese American variant far outnumbers the authentic version here.

What’s the best Chinese restaurant in the world? Well, outside of China, anyway? (Outside of what? I know, I know.) Hard to choose when you can sample top digs in Lima, Tokyo, NYC, San Francisco (dammit, missed this one on my last trip), LA, Paris, Singapore, London, Dubai, Mumbai and more. This chapter is really more of Lee’s exploration of those endless varieties than a true quest for the best. And, after all, when the food varies this much, even on a top shelf, who’s to say what’s the best? It’s like choosing the best language. Lee’s minimal criteria are well-chosen nonetheless: “chopsticks, menus with Chinese writing…waiters who understand and speak Chinese.” Bonus points for: “specialties listed on the wall in Chinese…fish tanks with live creatures that might end up on your plate.” Negatives: “Chinese zodiac place mats…chop suey listed anywhere on the menu…charging for rice or tea.” For the record again, there are two restaurants in Birmingham that do quite well measured against these standards. But this is just the starting point; the heights are very high indeed, she maintains. Who wins? Zen Fine Chinese Cuisine outside Vancouver. Though, as I said, ratings like Lee’s are pretty loose, I still want to eat at Zen Fine very badly. Doubtless it’ll beat anything in my hometown, but I want to see just by how much.

Throughout the book are enjoyable and fascinating information nuggets thrown up by Lee’s assiduous and thorough mining. How a former circus clown, in an unconventional Damascus experience, heard God tell him to go into the fortune cookie business. And he did, forthwith. How and why 4/5 of the Chinese immigrants to the U.S. before the 50s came from the southern Chinese area now known as Guangdong-and how and why they now come mostly from Fuzhou. The reason the Chinese went into restaurants in America in the first place? Answer: in the 19th Century it was considered women’s work and so didn’t threaten white male workers. How Chinese restaurants in the U.S. use a sideways, Linux-like, open-source cultural “software” to share the best ideas and still not hurt their bottom line (this helps to explain why almost all Chinese restaurants in America have basically the same food). How General Tso’s Chicken became the most popular Chinese dish in America and whether or not the real General had anything to do with the dish. How fortune cookie fortunes are vetted to avoid any hint of unpleasantness. How soy sauce is defined and by who (highly political).

Lee makes an amorphous subject comprehensible—not a small thing. She keeps all the facts and controversies in balance and she makes me hungry. After reading this book, you’ll no longer look at sweet and sour pork, or fried radish cakes, the same way again. They may even taste a bit different.

(By the way, 8. really is Jennifer Lee’s middle name. It’s a lucky number in Chinese culture. It may have factored into the success of this book.)

Submitted by Richard Grooms
Fiction Department
Central Library

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