Monday, July 14, 2008

Book: The Fortune Cookie Chronicles (edited)

Well, that was fun. I devoured this book as quickly as, say, a plate of my favorite Chow Fun noodles.

Jennifer 8. Lee (don't you love her middle name?) is obsessed with Chinese food. Fortune cookies in particular. So, she goes on a quest to figure out where they originated from. And, what's the best Chinese-food restaurant in the world. And, where General Tso's Chicken originated. And, how Chinese restaurants proliferate and where they get their workers. And, how come Chinese-American food is so different from real Chinese food.

It was kind of hard to figure out exactly what this book was about... let's say it was a stir-fry of all sorts of Chinese-food-related topics. Although the writing jumped from topic to topic, from storyline to storyline (and back again), it was entertaining and interesting throughout. If you think about it, this is a pretty interesting topic. I can see why she got swept up and sort of lost focus. Would you focus on the food, or the story of the people, or the story of the cuisine, or the culture surrounding Chinese restaurants, or the history of the fortune cookie? Why not choose all of them?

Apparently this is a popular subject. On, I discovered two good articles about fortune cookies and this book. I personally love fortune cookies. Around here, where they originated (the American version, that is), you can get bags of flat, non-folded, non-fortuned cookies. I personally love these delicately-flavored crunchy wafers. Trader Joe's used to have miniature cookie wafers and I would have to be careful not to eat the entire bag in one sitting. The fortunes I read with a quick smile, but the cookies I crave.

She spent a lot of time tracking down the origins of what she calls "America's most-popular Chinese dish," General Tso's chicken. I thought this was interesting because I almost never see that dish on menus here in the Bay Area. I wonder if it's because of our high Asian-American population, if the menus tend to drift more towards 'authentic' and less towards 'American' ... although instead of General Tso's, I almost always see Lemon Chicken, which is for sure not authentic Chinese. So there goes that theory.

I also almost never see Chop Suey, which is that most American of Chinese-American dishes. Instead, I always see Chow Mein. I love noodles, but my preferences is for the wide Chow Fun noodles... and now comes the part of the post where I go completely into my own world and talk about Chinese food.

At the end of my street in my hometown, there was our little town's single Chinese-American restaurant, the Wing Sing. It's one of those places that was dark, with red booths and dragons on the walls, where you could get chop suey AND a hamburger. My mom worked for the city for a long time and they often had their holiday lunch there. Sometimes I would go, and was fascinated by the egg-drop soup. One time when I was very small, I went with my grandma and I had a hamburger and a Shirley Temple. I did NOT want to try the Chinese food. We rarely had Chinese... sometimes we would have a Chun King packaged chow mein feast... with those crunchy Chinese noodles? That was a treat. Now the thought of that gooey preserved mess makes my stomach kind of turn. But I do love those sweet Chinese Noodle Cookies my mom used to make...

Nowadays I don't eat Chinese very often. Too greasy, too salty. However there's a really wonderful restaurant in Oakland's Chinatown, called Shan Dong. They have amazing noodles and the food is really wonderful. And, you see many Chinese families there (according to Ms. Lee, always a mark of an actually good Chinese restaurant). We have our own highly-rated restaurant here in Alameda (with a line out the door of Asian families) which I've never tried because it's called a 'seafood restaurant'. Apparently they have amazing dim sum, which we keep intending to take advantage of. However, after reading this book, I am totally craving Chinese and I think I have to try East Ocean Seafood Restaurant. I found a menu online and thankfully, although they are indeed a seafood place, they have everything else a good American girl like me would want: potstickers, lemon chicken, and chow fun. I could order something more 'authentic' but the book was about Chinese-American food, plus I love lemon chicken and haven't had it in a really long time. So there.

Oh right, back to the book. Anyway, it wasn't really that well-written and it was hard to follow, and it jumped around a lot (kind of like this post), but it was totally entertaining and very fun to read. I recommend it. Just be prepared to order takeout as soon as you're finished (if you can wait that long).

10 pm edited: OK, I had to have some Chinese food after reading this. I had pot stickers, lemon chicken and chow fun. A few observations:
1. East Ocean has better-than-average Chinese food, but not as good as Shan Dong.
2. I love pot stickers.
3. Lemon chicken isn't real food; but it's reaalll good.
4. If I didn't need detox before, now I do!!

I'm glad I don't eat this every week, but it is quite delicious sometimes.

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