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.

Philly’s Best New Cheap Eats: Ekta and Zhi-Wei-Guan

Joe and I are headed to Kitty Hawk, NC for a week of internet-free relaxation on the beach.  If you’re in Philly, though, two new spots to try:

Ekta

I posted about Ekta’s opening, so you know I was in a hurry to try the food.  I’m happy to report that Chef Raju Bhattarai has matched the quality that his fans came to expect at his former post, Tiffin, at his new restaurant a few blocks down Girard.  [where: 19125]  I ordered one of the few dishes I hadn’t seen before, Murg Pahari, described on the menu only as “chicken cooked in a village’s style.”  It arrived hot and on time, and it was comfort food– the chicken was cooked in a thick, spicy sauce of onions, tomatoes and herbs.  No heavy cream thickening the gravy here, just fresh vegetables and a low level of heat that allowed the flavors to shine.  Peshawari naan and onion bhajis were tasty, but the real standout was the freebie “chef’s accompaniment” that arrived labeled “semolina.”  It was a dessert semolina porridge with golden raisins and toasted almonds, its subtle sweetness cut by a hint of black pepper.  I hope it makes it onto the menu– I’d order it for dessert or for breakfast.

Zhi-Wei-Guan Restaurant

I’ve posted a lot about Race St. between 9th and 10th: Wong Wong, HK Golden Phoenix and Nan Zhou Hand Drawn Noodles all live on this blessed block. [where: 19107] Between Nan Zhou* and HK there’s a new neighbor: Zhi-Wei-Guan Restaurant, the Magic Kingdom of Dough.  (That’s what it says on the business card.)  Zhi-Wei-Guan is named after a famous restaurant in Hangzhou, China, and Hangzhou dishes are proudly featured throughout the menu.  We had an amazing Hangzhou-style duck noodle soup with bok choy, and noodle dishes are clearly a specialty.  The real star here, though, is the juicy buns.  When we arrived, around 9:15 PM, our server welcomed us cheerfully** and told us that the pork/shrimp/mushroom buns ($7.50) were almost sold out.  There were only five left, but she’d round out the order with some beef buns.  Who could say no to that?  The buns were indeed juicy, fresh and full of flavor.  The beef buns were very lightly cooked, still pink inside, but delicious, with a lighter flavor and texture than you might expect from a beef dumpling.  Definitely worth the price.  We also ordered a noodle soup with fried tofu and stewed spareribs, and found it deeply satisfying.  Unlike Nan Zhou down the street, which is known for its noodles, the amazing, knock-your-socks-off component to Zhi-Wei-Guan’s soup is the broth.  Both of the soups we tried were all about the complex, rich flavors of the broth.  The way it permeated the fried tofu– oh, man, you’re just going to have to try it.  The soups, by the way, are all in the $5-7 range.
They’re open until 10, and the service is amazing.  Our server was a friendly, personable woman in her twenties who chatted with customers, recommended dishes, brought us freebies (sliced cucumber with a vinegar-soy dipping sauce, yum!) and even took our pictures for the wall.  I wish I’d caught her name.  I’ve worked as a server and in retail, and I’m not a fan of the classic servile style of restaurant service– I’d rather talk to a friendly fellow human being who knows and cares about the food they’re serving.  I loved the food, but our server gave us such a good experience that I know I’ll be coming back regularly.
With that, I’m disappearing for the week– off to enjoy the tasty treats of Kitty Hawk.  Have a nice week, folks!

*a.k.a. Lanzhou (兰州/蘭州), not to be confused with Hangzhou (杭州).  Chinese transliteration is a complicated business; I’m not about to hazard guesses about what’s right or wrong.  Chinese speakers, please feel free to chime in.

** This is a welcome contrast to the dumpling house that briefly occupied this space before Zhi-Wei-Guan– I stopped in one night half an hour before closing time to order takeout and was shooed out by a surly server.

Nan Zhou Hand Drawn Noodles: Comfort in a Bowl

When we woke up on Saturday morning, rain was pouring down and flooding the streets, there was a chill in the air, and Joe was complaining that he was coming down with a cold. There was only one thing to be done: Chinese noodle soup.

This is another treat I was introduced to in New York, at the now-defunct Mee Noodle on First Avenue. Like Vietnamese pho or Jewish matzo ball soup, it’s one of those comforting soups with curative properties. And damn, is it tasty. My friend Lynn, who’s Taiwanese, had raved about this place, but we hadn’t been there yet. Clearly it was time. Read the rest of this entry »

Brunch Redefined: A Philadelphia Dim Sum Roundup

There’s brunch, and then there’s dim sum. I’m talking about Hong Kong-style dim sum, eaten in a huge, bustling dining room where servers with steam carts bring little plates of goodness right to your table. The dim sum tradition is alive and well in Philadelphia’s Chinatown, where dim sum of varying quality can be had for very reasonable prices.

I’ve written before about dim sum; it’s a tradition with a long history that dates back to the Silk Road, when teahouses popped up to feed weary travelers. Some dim sum dishes are seasonal, some regional, but in the US those differences tend to melt away in favor of giving diners a complete overview of the dim sum experience.

We’ve visisted three dim sum restaurants in Philly’s Chinatown over four occasions in the last few months: two visits involved only Joe and me, and two included our friend Lynn, who grew up in Taiwan and knows her dim sum. All of our visits were on Sundays in the early afternoon.

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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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Shrimp and Tofu Stir Fry

shrimp and tofu stir fry

This is a light and delicious version of the stir-fry mixture we did for Pan-Fried Noodles with Chicken, using shrimp and tofu.  My husband Joe and I were in the mood for a quick and healthy dinner.  We didn’t have any fresh noodles, so we just served this over rice.  (The sauce and marinade are the concoction of Eileen Yin-Fei Lo.)

Shrimp and Tofu Stir Fry

About an inch of ginger, peeled and chopped

2 cloves chopped garlic

handful of julienned snow peas

handful of julienned carrots

1 block firm tofu, cubed

1 lb or so of peeled and deveined raw shrimp

Soy sauce

Vegetable oil

For the sauce:

1 cup chicken stock

1 pinch each of cornstarch, ground pepper, sugar

1 dash each rice wine, dark soy sauce, sesame oil

For the marinade:

Mix dashes of sesame oil, rice wine, white rice vinegar and soy sauce with pinches of cornstarch, salt and sugar.

Marinate the shrimp and the tofu in the above marinade for at least an hour.

Get some vegetable oil very hot in a wok.  Throw in the ginger and garlic and give them about 20 seconds.  Add the shrimp and cook, stirring, until they start to become pink and opaque (not more than two minutes).  Add the tofu and vegetables, stirring constantly.  When everything is cooked, but still crispy, pour in the sauce and let everything cook until it thickens.  Serve over rice.

You can be creative with the veggies on this– mushrooms would be great in it.  Julienned zucchini, eggplant– you could really experiment with whatever you happen to have.  Other than the sodium content, it’s a healthy dish.  Leave out the shrimp (maybe add mushrooms instead) and it’s vegetarian as well.

By the way, if you’re gluten free, you can use tamari instead of soy sauce to make this a delicious gluten-free Chinese meal.  Not all varieties of tamari are brewed without wheat, but San-J brand makes a wheat-free tamari that’s a perfectly tasty alternative.  Most Whole Foods and Asian supermarkets carry it.

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How Not to Cook Chinese Food: Jade Harbor

It’s a Real Potato milestone: our first bad restaurant review. The lucky winner? Jade Harbor, on Race and 11th St. in Philadelphia’s Chinatown.

We were both too tired and hungry to cook last night, so we decided to meet up and get some delicious hand-drawn noodles. Unfortunately, the hand-drawn noodle place was closing up for the night, so we surveyed our options and decided on Jade Harbor. (Joe’s choice, by the way. I wanted to try the Peking Duck joint across the street.) It had a CitySearch award, and the menu looked varied, so we thought, hey, we’re in Chinatown, it can’t be that bad.

Wrong.

We ordered two appetizers, a scallion pancake and the house’s special Crispy Seafood Roll, billed on their website thusly:

We hope to make your dining experience memorable as we endeavor to serve you the finest and our famous “Seafood Roll” made with only the freshest and our secret recipes. You will come again if you have tried once….

Actually, I won’t: it was a big, sodden grease bomb. The scallion pancake was crispy, almost cracker-like, and only the bottom layer was greasy.

Joe decided to splurge on a dish he’d always wondered about, and got the Shark Fin Soup. It was expensive– $14– so he was expecting a large, filling bowl, but received a small, appetizer-sized cup. It was tasty, especially with the vinegary, bright red sauce our server provided, but not worth the money.

I ordered braised noodles with crabmeat, hoping for a light seafood dish. I received a ginormous bowl of bland and vaguely smoky-tasting noodles with four or five small chunks of fishy-tasting crabmeat. I’ve never in my life picked around the crabmeat and eaten only the vegetables, but that’s what I found myself doing last night. The hoisin sauce helped a little, but it couldn’t disguise the overwhelming greasiness of the dish. We paid our exorbitant-for-Chinatown tab and went home, reminding ourselves that we’ve been spoiled lately by the fresh, delicious Chinese food we’ve been making and seeking out. Next time, we’ll show up in time for the real deal.

Epilogue: Joe is not feeling well today. Hmmm….

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Jade Harbor in Philadelphia