Book Review: The Fortune Cookie Chronicles

For Americans, Chinese food is ubiquitous.  We debate about authenticity and taste in Chinatown and in our favorite corner takeout joints.   I may prefer the subtle charms of hand-drawn noodles or the joyous free-for-all that is dim sum to a folded white box of General Tso’s Chicken– but that doesn’t mean I didn’t have General Tso’s for lunch yesterday.  We see Chinese restaurants everywhere, without giving them a second thought– the almost-identical menus, the red and gold signs, the isolated Chinese families who are sometimes the only immigrants in town.

Jennifer 8. Lee, a Chinese-American New Yorker and beat reporter for the New York Times, tackles the question of Chinese food in America in all its glory in The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food. It’s an exuberant book, enthusiastic and well-researched, and Lee’s passion for her material is evident on every page.

The scope of Lee’s research is astonishing.  She visits Chinese restaurants all over the world in search of the best one (sorry, no spoilers here).  She travels to China to visit General Tso’s home village, where the inhabitants are surprised to hear that his fame in the West revolves around a chicken dish they’ve never tasted.  She visits San Francisco and Japan in her efforts to track down the origins of the fortune cookie.  And she delves deep into the world of “snakeheads,” the smugglers who charge would-be immigrants their life’s savings for dangerous passage into the US and Europe, and compassionately relates the story of Michael, a Fujianese man who survived a shipwreck on his journey to New York.

What she finds is astonishing.  This isn’t food porn (though there are plenty of tasty descriptions), nor is it fluff (though it is a quick and enjoyable read).  It’s more like the Freakonomics of Chinese food.  Lee applies her crisp writing and sense of humor to the intersections of social justice, the immigrant experience, business, gastronomy, and my favorite topic, political economy.

For example:

Why are American Chinese restaurants’ menus all so similar, even though they’re not centralized?  McDonald’s strives for the kind of uniformity that the China Gardens and Golden Pandas of small towns across American seem to have achieved effortlessly.  Lee argues that Chinese restauranteurs have, in effect, been early adopters of crowdsourcing techniques.

Why are Chinese dishes in America so different from Chinese dishes in China?  (And why do people in China find them so unpalatable?)  Lee traces the history of Chinese cooking in America, from 19th-century mining camps to chop suey palaces, and shows the evolution of the cuisine as it gained popularity and adapted to American tastes.

Why are the delivery people from Chinese restaurants so routinely mugged, beaten and murdered?  What does this say about the position of Chinese immigrants in the US?

Why is Chinese food so popular among American Jews?  Lee explores a kashrut scandal that took place in a Washington, DC-area kosher Chinese duck restaurant and the effect it had on the community.

And the question that ties all of these questions together: What does it mean to be an American child of Chinese parents?  It’s the fortune cookie that brings this question to the fore for Lee:

Fortune cookies weren’t Chinese.

It was like learning I was adopted while being told there was no Santa Claus. How could that be? I had always believed in the crispy, curved, vanilla-flavored wafers with the slips inside.

It was through reading The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan when I was in middle school that I first became aware of the mass deception. In one tale, two Chinese women find jobs in a San Francisco fortune cookie factory, where one is utterly perplexed when she learns that the cookies and their cryptic messages are considered Chinese.

I asked my mom if she had known all along that fortune cookies weren’t Chinese. She shrugged. She said when she first got to the United States from Taiwan, she’d assumed they were from Hong Kong or mainland China. China is a large and fractured place. She had never been to mainland China. Neither had I.

Lee’s quest to understand the origins of the fortune cookie becomes a quest to understand her own origins, and she handles it with intelligence, compassion and grace.  It’s a story relevant to every American (hyphenated or otherwise), every immigrant, everyone who’s ever sought a new life.  Whatever nonsense the Republicans and Democrats are spouting about barrier walls and guest-worker programs, it’s stories like the ones Lee brings to life that are the true lifeblood of this immigrant country.

Slow Cooker Chili: American History in a Bowl

Chili is a classic example of a dish created by poor people out of necessity that evolves into a beloved national dish. This one originates from Texas– there are some theories that it originated in Mexico, but they are widely regarded to have been disproved. According to What’s Cooking America’s wonderful account, chili origin legends in the Americas date back to at least 1618, when

it is said that the first recipe for chili con carne was put on paper in the 17th century by a beautiful nun, Sister Mary of Agreda of Spain. She was mysteriously known to the Indians of the Southwest United States as “La Dama de Azul,” the lady in blue.

Mind you, Sister Mary was supposedly projecting herself spiritually to this unnamed tribe from her abbey in Spain. Good story, but probably not it.

Another theory is that the recipe evolved from pre-Colombian ingredients and migrated north. Another holds that it was invented in Mexico specifically to cater to American visitors– tourist food, in other words, which is an interesting theory. The prevalent belief, however, is that chili con carne evolved as a simple peasant dish in San Antonio in the 19th century. We know that

During the 1880s, brightly-dressed Hispanic women known as “Chili Queens” began to operate around Military Plaza and other public gathering places in downtown San Antonio. They would appear at dusk, building charcoal or wood fires to reheat cauldrons of pre-cooked chili, selling it by the bowl to passers-by. The aroma was a potent sales pitch, aided by Mariachi street musicians, who joined in to serenade the eaters. Some Chili Queens later built semi-permanent stalls in the mercado, or local Mexican marketplace. (Link)

Everything traceable seems to bring chili back to Texan street food– the perfect spot for Native American, Mexican, Spanish and Anglo cultures to be drawn together into regional specialties.

So what is chili? Read the rest of this entry »

Six Month Anniversary Dinner: Fall Spiced Pork Chops with Spinach and Apple; Stuffed Heirloom Tomatoes

Sarah and I celebrated our six-month anniversary of marriage with a nice dinner and some wonderful home-brewed beer made by Sarah’s best friend Kara, which we aged for six months.

I was inspired by Ida Mae’s Bruncherie to do a fall pork chop dish. Theirs is applewood smoked but I do not have a smoker, so I had to improvise a bit. Earlier in the day we went to the Headhouse Market and bought two thick grass fed pork chops, some apples, heirloom tomatoes, some raw milk Parmesan cheese and some spinach.

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Patou: Bad Food in a Big, Empty Room.

patou1.jpg

[where: 312 Market St, Philadelphia, PA 19106]

Call it foreshadowing. I had a bad feeling from the start.

The minute we walked into Patou and asked about getting some tapas, the hostess looked at us like we were from Mars.

“We don’t do tapas anymore.”

But, we pointed out, they’re described in detail on your website. “They are?”

She asked us if we’d like to stay for dinner, in a tone that suggested she really wouldn’t mind if we left. And yet we stayed.

We had a gift certificate, you see. Joe got some fabulous-looking deal at Restaurants.com– $4 for a $25 gift certificate (with the purchase of two dinner entrées). It was too good to be true! And it was.

Read the rest of this entry »

Honey’s Sit’ N’ Eat: Texan-Jewish Fusion Brunch

It was a sunny fall Saturday, we’d slept in late after an exhausting week, and we’d heard great things about the newly reopened Silk City Diner in Northern Liberties, so Joe and I waited for the number 5 bus and schlepped over to Spring Garden St. We arrived at Silk City at 3:50 pm, salivating with anticipation, only to be told that they were closed already and would reopen at 5. There was no sign to tell hungry potential diners they were out of luck, of course.

I’m generally a friendly, easygoing person, but don’t get between me and food. It’s just a bad idea. We made our unhappy way up the street to Honey’s Sit’N’Eat and arrived at the stroke of four, just at closing time. We weren’t expecting to get anything to eat, but popped our heads in anyway, and a friendly, bearded server told us that if we ordered quickly we could still eat.

We both ordered chicken-fried steak, which came with gravy, two eggs, a potato latke and a buttermilk biscuit. Yes, a potato latke. Honey’s is run by Jewish foodies from Texas, and the cultural combination makes for a fascinating and eclectic menu– beef brisket and biscuits and gravy share space with Mexican breakfast dishes and matzo ball soup. Our latkes tasted and looked more like spicy hash browns, but they blended well with the slightly spicy gravy and savory buttermilk biscuit. And oh, the chicken-fried steak…

Read the rest of this entry »

Brunch at Cuba Libre

Joe and I are brunch eaters. I’ve come to believe that brunch is the best of all possible meals. First of all, it’s the meal of leisure: you don’t eat brunch on work days, you eat it on the weekends, after sleeping in. You eat brunch with your sweetie after a relaxing morning, or with a group of friends. You take out-of-town guests to brunch. It’s fun. Second, there’s the meal itself: It’s breakfast! It’s lunch! Technically it’s both, but really it’s about being able to decide which meal you want after sleeping late enough that you really ought to be eating lunch. And unlike breakfast and lunch, brunch comes with delicious cocktails. And coffee. The dishes, too, tend to be more creative at brunch: restaurants try to outdo one another with unusual meals that draw crowds.

Brunch, in other words, is awesome. Any restaurant that can do it justice (and so many do not) is one I will frequent.

We’d heard good things about the Tropical Brunch at Cuba Libre in Old City, but it wasn’t until last week that we finally made it over there. I’m almost reluctant to write about it, because we didn’t have to wait for a table, and if I tell you how good it is you might all start going and then I’ll have to wait in line. But- sigh- I’m a food blogger, and that’s my job, so I’ll let you in on my secret: Cuba Libre’s brunch is amazing. It’s been a week and I’m still salivating at the memory.

The restaurant’s main dining room is built to resemble the patio of a Cuban villa, with tile floors and an upper level with traditional architecture and plants hanging down. In warm weather, the outer doors open onto sidewalk seating. The black-clad waitstaff darts back and forth from their sections to a small coffee bar built into a nook underneath the stairs.

Drinks are all themed, and would be a little gimmicky if they weren’t so good. Joe had a Cafe Cuba Libre, a large cup of Cuban coffee flavored with coconut milk. It was rich and sweet enough not to need sugar (which Joe normally adds). I had a pomegranate champagne mojito, which was strong, sweet and served with lots of properly muddled mint. Yum. The serving was generous enough that I had a hard time finishing mine.

Joe ordered the Torrejas, described thusly: “hazelnut and almond encrusted French toast stuffed with Frangelico-Mascarpone cheese, aromatic honey drizzle.” It’s a huge dish, beautifully presented covered in crushed nuts, honey and powdered sugar. The inner Mascarpone filling is incredibly rich. The pleasant surprise here was that it was not, as you might expect, overwhelmingly sweet. In fact, the filling and bread were very subtle, and most of the sweetness came from the drizzle and powdered sugar on the outside.

I ordered the Duck Frita Salad, and I swear to you, a week later I can still taste every bite. I’m not normally a big salad person, but this just floored me. Here’s the official description: “Warm braised duck leg meat shredded and crisped, garlic mojo, mixed greens, hearts of palm, banana chips and a poached egg, orange-saffron vinaigrette.” Yeah, I know, and it tastes even better. The duck meat was rich and crispy, with a complex flavor that contained hints of garlic, mint, anise, and possibly cumin, and the serving was generous. The greens were fresh and crispy, mostly spinach with some romaine, evenly tossed with the subtle vinaigrette. I prefer spinach in my salads and was pleasantly surprised. The poached egg added even more richness, and the hearts of palm and banana chips liberally sprinkled throughout gave the salad a wonderful crispy texture. Did I mention this dish is gluten-free? It is, like many of the dishes on the menu.

Service was mixed- we sometimes had trouble getting our server’s attention, but that was mostly because she was busily attending to the next table over, which was filled with people who hadn’t read the menu and then got surprised when their food was served exactly the way they’d ordered it and demanded changes. (I really hated customers like that when I was waiting tables.)

The brunch at Cuba Libre isn’t cheap enough for us to do it regularly– entrees average around $12– but it’s really worth the splurge. I’m looking forward to having that salad again as soon as possible.

[where: 10 S 2nd St, Philadelphia, PA 19106]

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Cuba Libre in Philadelphia

Sugar-Crusted Salmon with Stir-Fried Purple String Beans

I can’t take credit for this idea. Emeril Legasse of Food Network did sugar-crusted salmon a number of years ago. It is really easy and very tasty. Take salmon and cut it into two inch wide strips. Coat with sugar and saute a couple minutes on all sides. Serve over rice.

I also made some purple string beans. I stir fried them in a wok with a bit of oil, sesame oil, dark soy sauce and a little rice wine vinegar. When they were done I chopped some lemon verbena and tossed it with the beans. Lemon verbena’s flavor is intense, so use it sparingly. Purple string beans are a little more fibrous than thier green counter parts. I sauted them until they turned green so I know they were done but they were still a bit chewy. They had a good flavor, though.  If we buy them again, I may just steam them.

Overall a quick, healthy and very flavorful meal. Totally dairy-free, and you can make it gluten-free easily by using tamari instead of soy sauce.

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