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An author finds her Chinese identity, one dish at a time

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Emily Schwab
Globe Correspondent / March 12, 2008

CAMBRIDGE - Jennifer 8. Lee has been asked about the numeral 8 in her name many times. Eight connotes prosperity in her parents' native Mandarin and is, she says, a handy way to distinguish herself from all the other Jennifer Lee's.

The 31-year-old Lee, a metro reporter for The New York Times, has just written her first book, "The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food." Late last year, Lee was in Boston and talked about when she learned English, how she learned about Chinese food, and where iconic restaurant dishes came from. "Fortune Cookie Chronicles" is part memoir, part travelogue, part cultural history.

Lee, born in New York and raised in Queens and Morningside Heights, is the oldest of three children; her parents are Fujianese. By her own description, she looks Chinese and sounds American. Growing up, her family spoke Mandarin. As a girl, she first learned English from watching "Sesame Street."

When her mother, Angela, was too busy to cook - she was a stay-at-home mom; her father was a computer programmer - she ordered Chinese take-out for the family. She also adapted the classic pork dumplings, standard fare in China, by filling them with ground turkey. "I never thought it was weird," says the daughter, "until I was writing this book." When she asked her mother why the family ate turkey dumplings, her mother simply said that they're healthier.

After college, Lee spent a year studying at Beijing University and eating her way around the countryside. She writes of this time, "I began spitting bones out onto the table and drinking watery soup after a meal to wash it all down. I even drank hot tea - no fortune cookies to be found." The food she ate in China more closely resembled what she knew of home cooking. As she toured this country and abroad, "The Fortune Cookie Chronicles" ultimately became a search for her own identity.

The three-year-long adventure took Lee through 42 states and more than 20 countries on a quest to untangle the history of icons such as white take-out boxes, General Tso's chicken, and fortune cookies.

White containers became associated with Chinese food around World War II (before that, they were used for shucked oysters and their liquor). General Tso's (or General Gao's) chicken as we know it was Americanized from the Chinese version by making the chicken crispier and the sauce sweeter, and adding broccoli florets.

General Tso Tsungtang - alternatively Zuo Zongtang - was, writes Lee, a "great scholar-warrior" of the mid-1800s Hunan province. The dish was posthumously named for the general by a restaurateur in Taiwan, but the sweet fried chicken recipe we know was originally named for another Hunan war hero - General Ching. General Tso, "known for war, not chicken," writes Lee, eventually became associated with the dish.

And fortune cookies were originally Japanese. Japanese cooks, of course, made them with Japanese-language fortunes. When the Japanese were interned during World War II, restaurateurs left behind their cookie-making machines. Chinese cooks started making cookies and serving them in their own restaurants; fortunes were printed in English.

Lee found an unusual incident involving fortune cookies and the Powerball lottery. It all started with a lottery drawing in 2005, when more than 100 second-place winners across the country all picked the same first five numbers - and all got their numbers from fortune cookies. Powerball officials didn't know where the numbers came from and were stumped. Lee explains that they were all printed by Wonton Food, a Brooklyn-based fortune cookie company. Fortunes typically have a message on one side and a list of numbers on the other. Most of the winners received $100,000; more than 20 received $500,000 because of the lucky numbers.

One story Lee found that didn't make it into the book is about wok stoves, which were invented in San Francisco in the early 1900s. They're made from oversized woks that are permanently attached to stove tops, often with a spigot nearby for water access. "The old woks in China were made out of rocks and bricks," Lee explains. Cooks in China commissioned the American inventor to install the equipment, which is now essential hardware in restaurants here and in China.

The book is as much about Chinese food as it is about the American style of eating. "Our benchmark for Americanness is apple pie. But ask yourself," Lee coaxes, "how often do you eat apple pie? How often do you eat Chinese food?"

She's onto something.

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