Thursday, September 24, 2009

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

In The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food, Jennifer 8. Lee explores Chinese food around the world. On her travels, she uncovers the origins of the fortune cookie (and why they don't have them in China), General Tso chicken, and chop suey (in a chapter called "The Biggest Culinary Joke Played on One Culture to Another".) She delves into the world of soy sauce, kosher ducks, food delivery, restaurant workers and much more. Along the way she meets many fascinating people: John and Jenny (and their heart breaking story), fortune cookie makers, restaurateurs and immigrants. One thing is for sure, you'll never look at Chinese food the same again.

This book is utterly fascinating. From the very first page, I was hooked. I didn't know all of the locations (in America or around the world) or restaurants to which Lee referred, but the subject matter itself was interesting and very well presented. I loved how the author opened with the lottery winners, who just happened to get their winning numbers for a fortune cookie. She returned to them time and time again throughout her narrative making the book one cohesive unit rather than a bunch of disjointed anecdotes.

One of my favourite parts was when one of the people that Lee met received a fortune cookie that read: Do or do not. There is no try. Lee immediately recognized that it was from The Empire Strikes Back and writes, Yoda our new Confucius is. Priceless!

The other part that I found really interesting was the chapter that offered "a window into the relationship between Jews and Chinese food" called "Why Chow Mein is the Chosen Food of the Chosen People--or, the Kosher Duck Scandal of 1989". This was all new to me, but I wondered how prevalent it was and whether or not it included Jews in Canada. According to Lee, Jews love Chinese food. I won't go into any more details about the relationship, you'll have to read this book for that. I'll just say it's amazing.

To my surprise, soy sauce in the United States and apparently here in Canada doesn't have to be made with soy. Lee explains how this came about and how some people have gone to great lengths to change that. It makes sense to me that all soy sauce should actually contain some soy, but I don't always read the ingredients list. After reading the chapter called "The Soy Sauce Trade Dispute", I immediately went to my soy sauce stash. The little packets (that I had been hoarding like gold) actually are made with soy so I'm going to keep those. My favourite bottled stuff is made with soy-based hydrolyzed plant protein. While it's not the best, it still might qualify as soy sauce. However, I also have some stuff that doesn't contain any soy at all. There just a little left so it'll probably end up in the trash. To my surprise, I actually had a two bottles of the "real" stuff (made with soybeans and naturally brewed) in the refrigerator. Both of those bottles are keepers. When was the last time you read the ingredients on your bottle of soy sauce?

As a final teaser: do you know where the greatest Chinese restaurant in the world is? Well, Lee does. She lays out her research and criteria and comes up with a winner. I'm not going to tell you who the winner was, but I will say it was a surprise.

The research that went into this book was extensive. You can tell not only by the acknowledgements, detailed notes and extensive bibliography that wrap up the book, but also by a statement from Lee in which she states that in the three years she spent on the book, she visited six continents, twenty-three countries and forty-two states (page 251).

Highly recommended. Whether you love Chinese food or not, this book is a fascinating look at Chinese people, culture and food.

For more information about this book, please visit the Hachette Book Group website.


  1. Can't wait to read this book! I saw the author this month on Martha Stewart's show, too!

  2. I hadn't heard of this one. You make it sound really tempting. I'll have to look for it now - I want to know where that Chinese restaurant is! ;)


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