Tuesday, November 23, 2010

"The Fortune Cookie Chronicles" - Jennifer 8. Lee

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

For non-American readers the revelations in “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles” will probably come as less of a shock, since, for most Europeans (the uber-sophisticaded world travellers excluded) the first image of Chinese food (and more recently sushi) probably came from watching a random American TV show or movie.

As I followed Jennifer 8. Lee’s delicious chronicles I wasn’t particularly astounded to find out that, in China, fortune cookies (which by the way, are very uncommon in Europe) are not known, and that the most popular Chinese food dishes in America, such as General Tso’s Chicken, Beef and Broccoli and Chow Mein, were creations of Chinese chefs specifically engineered to suit the American palate, favorite ingredients and presentation.

I was surprised however, to find out that fried ice-cream – one of the most popular Chinese desserts in Portugal – was only found by the author in Italy. In fact, as Lee explains, traditional Chinese gastronomy is not known for its sweets. But the Chinese, brilliant at meeting the culinary expectations of different cultures, must have soon found out that, especially in southern Europe, dessert is almost mandatory!

Growing up, I always heard that food in China had almost no similarities with what I ate in Chinese restaurants (something I only started doing quite late, since my family wasn’t big on restaurants or ethnic food – unless you count my mom’s homemade lasagna or pizza), but it’s still fascinating to follow Lee’s explorations in search of the roots of the “Chinese” in Chinese-American food.

But “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles” also offers interesting sociological stories courtesy of Chinese food, such as the age-old relationship between American Jews and Chinese restaurants, the emergence of the first home-delivery systems, and the sad plight of contemporary Chinese immigrants. Impossible not be shocked at the amount most Chinese pay (upwards 50.000 thousand dollars) in order to endure months, sometimes years, of grueling travel so they can be afforded the privilege of ringing our western doorbells and hand us our sweet-and-sour pork.

So, where did the fortune cookie originate? Well, you can find out that fun fact by popping over to Wikipedia right now. But Lee’s book gives the reader a lot more to ponder: even in small western capitals such as Lisbon, eating the ethnic food du jour (nowadays, mostly sushi, to the point that Chinese restaurants seem to have disappeared or recast as nippon counterparts) is the mark of a certain urbanite hipsterism - it signals sophistication and a sense of adventure. Like our cheap t-shirts, however, there is always a hidden cost, and finally what we end up eating is not as original as we might like to think – “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles” will provide any reader with food for thought.

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