China Beat Archive


Date of this Version


Document Type



December 6, 2008 in The China Beat


Copyright December 6, 2008 Kate Merkel-Hess. Used by permission.


Browsing the new book shelf of the local public library this week, I noticed not one but a whole selection of books that delve into the regional cuisines of China. Just last summer, Nina and Tim Zagat wrote an op-ed for The New York Times titled, “Eating Beyond Sichuan,” in which they called for greater diversity in the Chinese cuisine dished up around the U.S.—something more akin to the taste bud thrills anyone visiting or living in China experiences on a daily basis. There are intimations of Chinese cuisine diversity to come—such as the much-hailed developments in areas populated by large numbers of Chinese immigrants like Flushing in recent years. Whether or not these developments will eventually influence those MSG-laden, heavily sauced “Great Wall”s and “Chinatown”s scattered throughout the U.S. is yet to be seen. In the meantime, perhaps Chinese cuisine books will spread the word.

The first in my stack of library finds was The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food, by Times writer Jennifer 8. Lee. Beginning her book with an anecdote about a statistically improbable number of lottery winners who had chosen their numbers from a fortune cookie (a treat unknown in China), Lee explores both her own relationship to Chinese food (as the child of Taiwanese immigrants ) and that of people around the world, including some of those Powerball winners. Through the series of interconnected essays that make up the book, Lee investigates the origins of General Tso and his chicken, the stories of Chinese immigrants running far-flung U.S. restaurants, and the origins of Chinese take-out, among other topics. Pegged on a charming anecdote, Lee’s book also relays heartbreaking tales about some of the Chinese immigrants who staff restaurants across the country—emphasizing the social and economic ties that connect Fujian to New York City to little towns in Georgia or South Dakota.