Book Reviews · Non-fiction

The Fortune Cookie Chronicles

Though I can remember going to Chinese restaurants on occasion when I was young, my love for Chinese food (particularly for Chinese takeout) was very much a product of my college experience. We had two exceptional Chinese restaurants near our college campus, one of which was only a five minute walk from our dorm. My roommates and I ate Chinese food on a fairly regular basis (not quite once a week, but pretty close), frequently with other friends, and during game nights and anime marathons. Even though I’ve been out of college for more than a decade, eating Chinese food still gives me the same feelings of contentment that I experienced back then, and has definitely become one of my preferred “comfort foods.”

While I’ve always known that the Chinese food I love so much has been Americanized, I didn’t really have an appreciation for just how different Chinese food is here in the United States until I picked up The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food, by Jennifer 8. Lee.

Given my interest in non-fiction and my love for Chinese takeout, you might assume that I sought out The Fortune Cookie Chronicles specifically because I was interested in learning about the origins of Chinese food in America. To a certain extent, that is true. But this book was actually brought to my attention in a pretty unconventional way. I came across the title while reading an Avengers fanfiction story; it was casually mentioned by one of the characters, and the title caught my attention. As soon as I read the description of the book, I decided that I needed to check it out for myself.

The Fortune Cookie Chronicles is a fascinating book, which not only discusses the origins of some very well-known dishes (such as chop suey and General Tso’s Chicken), as well as the origin of the fortune cookie itself, but also explores the history and popularity of Chinese restaurants and cuisine in the United States, and around the world.

“This book began as a quest to understand Chinese food. But three years, six continents, twenty-three countries, and forty-two states later, I realize it was actually a personal journey to understand myself.”

The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, by Jennifer 8. Lee (page 251)

Ultimately, the book is not just about food. It’s also about people, and their relationships with food. In many chapters, the author shares stories about some of the pioneers of the Chinese food industry, talks to modern-day restaurant owners and fortune cookie manufacturers, and discusses her own relationship to Chinese food (both in its traditional and Americanized forms), as well as the journey she took in creating The Fortune Cookie Chronicles. It’s an interesting, eye-opening read, and one that I highly recommend.

Whether you’re a fan of Chinese food, looking to learn more about the history of the fortune cookie, or fascinated by the sometimes complicated relationships people have with food, I think The Fortune Cookie Chronicles will be appealing to you. Fair warning though…you may find yourself craving Chinese food while you’re reading.

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