Friday, August 15, 2008

No Surprises

Have you ever noticed that most chinese restaurants have the same kinds of names--Hunan or Dragon or Pagoda or China something? When I was in graduate school in College Park, Maryland, we called the local place by the name of our friend who discovered it: Kevin's Chinese.

Reading The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, by Jennifer 8. Lee, reminded me of the old Holiday Inn ads: no surprises. If you've read anything about the book, an examination of how "Chinese" chinese food actually is, or if you've ever talked to people from China about what they eat, you already know the author's conclusion: chinese restaurants cater to local tastes. For instance, you won't find "General Tso's chicken" in China, and broccoli is an American "chinese" vegetable.

But there are some interesting details along the way. The prologue is the most surprising part of the book--it begins with the story of how an unusual number of people won the lottery and reveals that what they had in common was picking their numbers from fortune cookies. It was mildly interesting to find out that there are a small number of people who write all the fortunes, and that Americans are intolerant of bad fortunes, so we only get good ones. It was also mildly interesting to find out that fortune cookies were invented by the Japanese and only became associated with chinese restaurants after WWII. I didn't know that the little packets of soy sauce you get with a takeout order are non-brewed (and therefore, technically, not soy sauce). The most memorable fact I picked up from this book is that the main difference between the food that Chinese people eat and the food we get in chinese restaurants can be seen in that there are lots of bits left over from the food Chinese people eat--beaks, feet, seeds, etc.

It's no surprise to find out that chinese restaurants in the NYC area began delivering, so that now you can get all kinds of food delivered (unless you live in rural Ohio, in which case the only places that deliver are pizza joints).

The most interesting chapter of the book is the one about chop suey, which she calls "the biggest culinary joke played by one culture on another." I particularly enjoyed the tone of this paragraph:

Since the country's Puritan and Protestant roots still maintained a tight influence on the popular culture, food was sustenance, not something to be enjoyed. Tempered by religious piety and frontier austerity, American cuisine was dominated by one characteristic: Aggressive Blandness. If there was a second guiding principle, it would be Extreme Saltiness. IN much of the country, highly seasoned or fancy foods were regarded with hostility and suspicion, as a form of sensual indulgence. Spicy foods were suspected of something worse than increasing the craving for alcohol: many people shared the notion that they stimulated extreme appetites for sex. Only the southern states--whose complicated settlement history had left them with an amalgam of African, English, French, Spanish, and Italian cooking traditions--escaped with a lively cuisine. They simmered and sauteed and used rich spices, while in the rest of America the cooking vocabulary essentially consisted of baking, boiling, and roasting--quiet, passive activities that more or less encapsulated Americans' attitude toward food. So Americans were suspicious of these foreigners [the Chinese] and their animated cooking over large flames. There were too many noises: chopping, clanging, the roar of the fire, chattering over meals.

Lee spends a lot of time trying to track down the originator of chop suey and is ultimately unsuccessful, although her conclusion to the chapter is interesting:

"Chop suey, I discovered, has become an American export. I have found it in Japan, Korea, Jamaica, Guyana, and the Caribbean. In India, "American chop suey" (often made with ketchup!) remains one of the most popular dishes on Chinese menus, a stalwart just across the border from China. In Los Angeles, a Chicano girl who worked at Avis confided to me that her family would sometimes drive four hours to Mexicali, the Chinese-restaurant capital of Mexico, to have chop suey. She added, 'You can't get it in the same way in the United States.'"

One of the quests Lee sets for herself is to find the "best" Chinese restaurant in the world, and she finally settles on one in the Vancouver (Canada) region called Zen Fine Chinese Cuisine, because it has a good chef and a number of Chinese patrons, even though the chef is "self-taught" and his dishes have "a Chinese foundation" but he uses "European techniques."

The main message of the book is best phrased here:

When I stopped into an Indian-Chinese restaurant, the Indian-American customers told me that Chinese food is a taste of home more so than Indian food itself. After all, they can always cook Indian food in their own kitchens, even when they live outside India. But Chinese food served Indian style? That is something truly from India. These restaurants are authentic to those who want to be reminded of their native lands."

And her conclusion is phrased in computing terms:

"If McDonald's is the Windows of the dining world (where one company controls the standards), then Chinese restaurants are akin to the Linux operating system, where a decentralized network of programmers contributes to the underlying source code. The code is available for anyone to use, modify, or redistribute freely."

The final non-surprising thing about the book, at least for me, is that reading it made me hungry. Luckily, after watching Kung Fu Panda, the pickiest eater in our house has become enthusiastic about dumplings, so it's easier for us to visit our local chinese restaurant, the Hunan Garden.


Alison said...

For a while, some friends and I had an operating hypothesis that there really is only one Chinese restaurant in the US. It is in fact a giant factory somewhere in Nebraska, and it distributes the food to all other Chinese restaurants via a gigantic version of that vacuum tube system they have at the bank.

Jeanne said...

In fact Lee does write about how Chinese restaurant workers, many of them from the same province in China, migrate around the U.S. from restaurant to restaurant.

My friends and I had that hypothesis about airports--that there's only one, with a massive underground tunnel system, and they just change the signs at the part of the airport you get to when you've "flown" from "Boston" to "Chicago."