Cross-Cultural Egg Roll

Forget apple pie. Chop suey is America’s national food, or was until kung pao chicken took its place. Jennifer Lee’s study of transplanted Asian cooking is a wide-angle view of the way America absorbs its immigrants even as it embraces facets of their culture. She points out that that there are more Chinese restaurants in the U.S. than MacDonald’s, Kentucky’ Fried Chickens and Burger Kings combined. But the dishes these restaurants serve aren’t found in China. Lee’s investigation begins when numbers pulled from fortune cookies result in a bounty of lottery winners. Tracing the fortune cookie’s invention (probably by a Japanese baker in San Francisco) leads her to other all-American dishes –General Tso’s chicken—as well as the history of take-out and the blight of mass distributed menus. Along the way—the fact that she speaks Mandarian makes her interviews all that more relevant–Lee discovers more about American tastes than Chinese cuisine and how, as one restaurant owner puts it, Chinese cooking took on American influence “to make a business out of it.” Working in and owning restaurants has served as a traditional means of entry for Chinese immigrants and the book details one family’s hard luck odyssey from the kitchens of New York to their own store front in Georgia and back again. Lee also finds cross-cultural lessons when pursuing kosher Chinese food and Mexican immigrants who prepare chow mein. There’s a chapter on soy sauce (many American brands contain no soy) but only a mention of controversial flavor additive MSG. Lee’s never heavy-handed with her cultural conclusions, but instead lets them unfold like a paper strip with a message. Equal parts history, economics and human nature, Fortune Cookie is a scrumptious read that stays with you longer than, well, you know.—Cabbage Rabbit

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