Lottery officials suspected fraud when 110 people got 5 out of 6 of the lottery numbers in the March 30, 2005 Powerball lottery draw. Instead, the culprit turned out to be the fortune cookie – that crescent-shaped cookie with words of wisdom that signals the finale of every Chinese restaurant meal. In recent years, fortune cookie manufacturers have included lucky numbers with the fortunes. In Chinese restaurants across North America, customers received a fortune cookie with the numbers 22, 28, 32, 33, 39, and (the incorrect number) 40. Those who happened to play the numbers in the March 30 Powerball draw, won big.
Understanding Chinese Restaurant Food
If there was any doubt over the extent to which Chinese restaurants have penetrated North American culture, the “Great Fortune Cookie Scandal” laid them to rest. In The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, New York Times reporter Jennifer 8. Lee explores this unique cultural phenomenon. Her initial investigations into the mystery of how dozens of people received identical winning numbers on a fortune cookie eventually led to an exploration into the origins of the cookie, and the unexpected discovery that they probably originated in Japan. From there, she delves into other interesting episodes in Chinese food history – such as the international soy sauce trade dispute and the question of who really invented chop suey. In her quest Lee interviewed everyone from a Taipei chef who invented the original General Tso’s chicken, to an executive with the company that makes those intriguing trapezoidal Chinese take-out boxes. The book is loaded with interesting trivia: for example, Chinese food is served on all seven continents (even Antarctica), and there are more Chinese food restaurants in the United States than McDonalds, Wendys and Burger Kings combined.
The Other Side of Chinese Restaurant Culture
While these sections are entertaining and informative, the book also has a more serious side. Some of the most interesting chapters focus on the life of Chinese restaurant workers in North America. Most of us probably assume that the staff at our favorite Chinese restaurant live in town, or at least within driving distance. The truth is that many of the Chinese clerks, dishwashers, and other staff employed at Chinese restaurants live in New York City. They travel on “restaurant buses,” heading for small towns throughout North America, where the need for Chinese restaurant employees can’t be met by the local population. As Lee writes: “Restaurant workers lead a nomadic existence, bouncing from state to state, restaurant to restaurant, region to region.”
Not that the picture is always rosier for Chinese restaurant owners. In “Waizhou, U.S.A.,” Lee explores the plight of one Chinese family who tried to make a go of running a Chinese restaurant in a small town in Georgia, and how the experience nearly tore them apart.
The World’s Greatest Chinese Restaurant
No book covering the Chinese restaurant scene would be complete without an effort to find the world’s best Chinese restaurant (outside of China). Lee’s quest to find the one restaurant that surpassed all others spanned a year and took her across the globe, to fifteen countries on six continents. She dined on Sweet and Sour Pork in Lima, met with famed Iron Chef Chen Kinichi in Tokyo to discuss the Japanese take on Chinese food, and feasted on an array of classic Chinese dishes in San Franciso's Chinatown. Which Chinese restaurant did she ultimately pick? I won’t give away the answer, but I will say her choice may surprise you!
The Bottom Line - Must Reading for Chinese Food Lovers
The Fortune Cookie Chronicles
is an intriguing exploration into a world of Chinese restaurants, a subculture that remains unknown to most of us. My one tiny criticism is that some chapters in the book could have used color photographs. For example, it would have been great to have a photo of omikuji senbei
("fortune crackers") - the thick Japanese cookie, with a fortune tucked in its outer folds, that researchers now believe is the original fortune cookie. But this is a minor quibble. Overall, this book is an excellent resource for anyone who is passionate about Chinese food.
Update:After publishing this review, Author Jennifer 8. Lee wrote to let me know that she has created the Fortune Cookie Chronicles blog to help turn the book into a more multimedia experience.
The blog includes a compilation of photos from her quest to find the origin of fortune cookies. In addition, this excellent video on The New York Times Web Site explains everything you want to know about Japanese fortune cookies.