Jennifer 8. Lee chats about her new book

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March 5, 2008

Writer Jennifer 8. Lee took readers' questions about her new book, "The Fortune Cookie Chronicles," an exploration of the wonderful and weird origins of what we call Chinese food Here's a transcript of the discussion.

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general_tso__Guest_: What's General Tso's connection to chicken, exactly? Is that so big in Hunan province that it was just natural? Any sense that chicken was General Tso's favorite food?
Jennifer_8__Lee: So General Tso's chicken is barely known in China, in fact it's more an American dish than anything else. I went to find his family in Hunan Province, about an hour by highway outside the capital city of Changsha, and they said no one knows this dish. General Tso is actually Zuo Zongtang, a famous Qing dynasty general from Hunan. The recipe we now recognize as his chicken was introduced in New York City in the early 1970s. Whether he himself actually liked chicken, no one has been able to tell me.
general_tso__Guest_: You mentioned Zoe's in Somerville as being a good place...What would you order there?
Jennifer_8__Lee: When I go to Zoe's, I generally like their lamb dishes and their hotpot. Lamb meat is fairly popular in China, partially because of a Muslim influence, but more rare in American style Chinese restaurants. So if you see lamb offered on a Chinese menu, you know it has a decent Chinese audience. I like the hotpots because it reminds me of holidays with my family. Hotpot, where people cook raw meat and vegetables in a large boiling pot, is often a celebratory group kind of food tradition. Zoe's also has some good fish dishes. And they have a section of their menu which is Dongbei (Northeastern), which is more rare in America.
philbert__Guest_: Why don't Chinese restaurants serve breakfast? I rarely ever see a traditional Chinese breakfast, and I am curious as to what it is like...
Jennifer_8__Lee: Chinese are not super big on breakfast as a meal. It doesn't have the same ritualized feel as American breakfasts with pancakes, sausage, omelettes and the like. But I can tell you what I've eaten for breakfasts in China and Taiwan. So one, rice porridge (or congee) is very popular. It often has dried meat, fresh meat, various seafood or pickled things (eggs, veggies) sprinkled in to give it some kick. Also, when I was at Beijing University in the mornings we used to eat a lot of "bao" which is essentially like buns with things stuffed inside. We would go to the canteen where there would be these big steamers (sometimes bamboo, sometimes metal) of bao. Another thing that is common in Taiwan is danbing, or "egg pancake," which has pancakes (not American pancakes, different) grilled with eggs. Also common, doujiang, soy milk, often served warm.
trina__Guest_: How "Americanized" is the Chinese food we generally see at takeout restaurants?
Jennifer_8__Lee: The food that you see in your average Chinese take-out is extremely Americanized. Many Chinese people from China would not necessarily recognize the dishes, or how they are cooked. There are some notable differences between Chinese food for Chinese people and Chinese food for Americans.
Jennifer_8__Lee: Americans don't like to reminded their food ever swam, breathed, or walked. So most American Chinese food does not have anything too animalistic. No eyeballs. No claws. No feet. No ears. Chinese food in China often uses the whole of the animal: so pigs feet and ears, chicken feet, cow stomach, duck blood. My theory about this is that Chinese cuisine developed under a lot of constraints of poverty, therefore they used the whole of the animal. (The constraints of energy may be why Chinese also like wok cooking, which is energy efficient, versus baking, which is not). Other differences in Chinese cooking vs. American cooking. Americans don't like foods in their mouth that jiggle and are transparent (except for maybe jello). But Chinese people like dishes like jellyfish and sea cucumber. There is a concept of Chinese called "kougan" which is loosely translated as "mouth sensation" which means that a food can be savored not just for its flavor but its texture.
Jennifer_8__Lee: One thought about American Chinese food. In Chinese Chinese food, you don't see vegetable medleys (baby corn + broccoli + snowpeas etc.) Vegetable dishes are usually one vegetable with some extra stuff thrown in: garlic eggplant, string beans with dried pork etc.
Jennifer_8__Lee: In Korea, there is actually a chain of American Chinese restaurants called "Ho Lee Chow" that serves "American-style Chinese food." They even have takeout boxes!
Ray__Guest_: Another question: How authentically Chinese is your average dim sum restaurant in America?
Jennifer_8__Lee: Dim sum restaurants tend to be pretty authentic, actually, since dim sum is very much rooted in the Cantonese tradition. So what they serve tends to be among the things that Chinese dim summers want. But American dim summers tend to veer towards dumpling and the like, and away from Chicken feet or snails or clams (again, the idea of not too animal). I had one chef who moved from a Brooklyn Chinese dim sum restaurant to a more mainstream, upscale place, and he complained that he was limited in his creativity because all the upscale people wanted to eat was version of dumplings (green ones, yellow ones, circle ones, triangle ones, shrimp ones, pork ones, but still dumplings)
Bennie_G__Guest_: Hey, I saw you on the Colbert Report
Jennifer_8__Lee: Yes! I was lucky enough to be on The Colbert Report last night, which turns out to be one of the toughest interviews an author can do. Most interviewers are like "So, tell me about your book," but the Colbert interview is a bit of a tete-a-tete between his desire and ability to be funny and improv and the author's goal of getting information across. So there is a whole art to giving him points that he can riff on while at the same time guiding him back to your conversation. Some of the tips I got: Don't try to be funny (that's his job), don't try to pander (talk about truthiness or whatever), and keep talking because if you are not talking he has nothing he can riff off of. I actually had friends brainstorm with me on points that we thought he would riff on (Chinese food being more American than apple pie) and ones he didn't (the Chinese will take over the world). One thing that was totally from left field, when he asked me to conduct the interview in Mandarin. I was so shocked that I said something contentwise that was inane: "I started writing this book a few years ago and now I am on your television show to talk about it." But my friends reminded me that the vast majority of the audience wouldn't have understood me either way.
Slick__Guest_: I think New England is the only area where Chinese restaurants served bread (rolls) with a meal. That's totally American. But some Cantonese restaurants still serve bread today. Are there any breads in Chinese cooking? Or are the steamed dumplings their version of bread?
Jennifer_8__Lee: Yes. When I went to college in Boston I was totally baffled by the fact we got Italian bread instead of rice with our delivery one day. Someone once explained it to me that Boston has such a strong Italian tradition that restaurantgoers were upset if they didn't get bread at their table. So Chinese restaurants conformed. Historically, there is not a lot of baked bread in Chinese cuisine, because Chinese people, in general, do not have ovens and they do not bake. Even now, in the kitchens of the posh apartments houses in Shanghai that my ex-pat American friends move into, there are no ovens, which causes them to wail, "What are we going to do for Thanksgiving?" My theory of why the Chinese do not bake is that it is not energy efficient. The Chinese do steam their bread however, but Americans often don't like steamed bread because it is white, and looks "undone" (Pillsbury doughboy-like). These days, in modern China, Hong Kong and Taiwan there are bakeries (probably imported from the West)! There are a couple of breads that are very Chinese now. I like the hot dog encased in a roll (like a giant pig in a blanket), and a roll with scallions on top. Those were very popular with me and my siblings growing up. We would buy them in Flushing, Queens, on Sundays, when our parents would drag us to do cultural activities like folk dancing, kung fu, and Chinese chorus.
CHOWMEINIAC__Guest_: In your book you tell the story about how owning a Chinese restaurant in a small Southern town ripped one family apart. You kept in touch with "Jane," the wife/mother of that family until she broke off contact in a move to Philly. Have you heard from her since the book came out?
Jennifer_8__Lee: Hi, yes! The mother's name is Jenny (Jane is a helpful neighbor). I actually have heard from this family (which I had followed for a few years through the writing of the book) since I submitted the manuscript. It was totally out of the blue. In applying for citizenship, she needed to get the disposition of her arrest in Georgia, so she called me to help her get it. I called Jane (the helpful neighbor who lived near them in Georgia) and she went and got it from the courthouse and then mailed it to me. John and Jenny came over and picked it up, bringing fruit (Chinese people love to bring fruit). Even more random. A few months ago the daughter, Jolene, friended me on Facebook.
SB__Guest_: Speaking of scallions, are scallion pancakes "authentically" Chinese?
Jennifer_8__Lee: As a matter of fact, scallion pancakes are pretty Chinese. I've eaten then in Taiwan and all over China.
concordnh__Guest_: On another New England topic, has your research uncovered anything about the origins of crab rangoon?
Jennifer_8__Lee: I did uncover some research on the crab rangoon (essentially cream cheese fried wontons). But I was not able to drive this research home to a level of comfort. I think crab rangoon was popularized by Trader Vic's, a restaurant out in California, during maybe the late 1950s/1960s (?). That is when I first noticed it appearing on menus when I slogged through hundreds of menus at many libraries across the country. Trader Vic's, from what I understand, was of the Polynesian tiki bar tradition that became popular after a lot of servicemen returned from World War II. Other features of tiki bars -- pupu platters, scorpion bowls. In traveling across the country I would say that the New England area has one of the strongest tiki bar meets Chinese restaurant culture in the country. I had never seen a scorpion bowl until I went to college (for numerous reasons other than I was underaged, of course).
Jennifer_8__Lee: Someone the crab rangoon has made the hop over to Chinese restaurants. Chinese restaurants are very good at adapting to their local palates. I see it a lot in the Midwest and South as well. In terms of local Chinese specialties, though I still adore the Philly cheesesteak roll, which looks like an egg roll on the outside but cheesesteak on the inside.
Ray__Guest_: C'mon, Jennifer, serve it up: Your favorite unauthentic guilty pleasure Americanized Chinese dish is ...?
Jennifer_8__Lee: General Tso's chicken! of course. The original name of my book was The Long March of General Tso. I have eaten it in like 40 states. I am absolutely obsessed with this dish and have the photos to prove it. I think it is the ultimate Chinese American dish. 1) it is chicken (Americans love chicken) 2) it is fried (Americans love fried) 3) it is slightly sweet (Americans love sweet). I found the chef who created the original General Tso's chicken (not the same recipe though). He's back in Taipei, retired and playing a lot of mahjongg. I showed him the pictures of the General Tso's chicken from my travels and he was horrified.
SB__Guest_: Why do Kosher Chinese restaurants (at least those in NY) have the corniest names, such as Shang Chai in Brooklyn?
Jennifer_8__Lee: I think America just loves corny Chinese food-based puns because it is common vocabulary we all share (goes to my point that Chinese food is all American). I've been amused by the headlines on reviews and articles relating to my book. Wok On, Egg Drop Scoop, Hot and Sour Scoop, Lo Mein Street.
Jennifer_8__Lee: As for corny Chinese restaurant names? My favorite: The boarding house where John Wilkes Booth planned the assassination of President Lincoln in Washington, D.C.? It's now a Chinese restaurant called Wok n Roll.
daled099__Guest_: I love Chinese food, but is it OK to say Chinese food or should we say Asian food to be more correctly political?
Jennifer_8__Lee: In most cases you can say "Chinese food" as the Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai, Vietnamese, Malaysian, etc., have fairly distinct culinary traditions (though they borrow from one another...there is Korean-Chinese food for example). I will note that Chinese restaurants have adopted other popular Asian dishes like sushi and pad thai in various parts of the country.
gator_fan__Guest_: What was it like on Stephen Colbert's show as a guest last night? Is he like that in real life?
Jennifer_8__Lee: In real life, Stephen Colbert is not like he is on TV (which is a character). He's very thoughtful, articulate, calm. I actually first saw him speak on a museum panel years and years ago before I had ever watched him on The Daily Show, and way before The Colbert Show aired. I thought he was almost professorial? So I was totally shocked when I saw him in character for a Daily Show segment. I was like, wow, was that the same guy? As for The Colbert Show experience, the staff is very sweet and attentive -- from the makeup person to the booker to the microphone guy. Oh, one note. They have a store of candy from Sam's Club backstage.
xtradksauce__Guest_: I think people are afraid to try new Chinese dishes. People seem to stick with the same things. Why not do a sampler to get some variety on the taste bud and expand the opportunity to frequent the restaurant?
Jennifer_8__Lee: I think many people are afraid to explore new things unless they have someone personally they trust (whether because of TV or a friend) introduce it to them. Some things sound very scary when written in English (bamboo pith for example). I know I have done my part in introducing dishes to my friends, many of whom live in New York, and many of whom are culinarily sophisticated. I think food is the first ambassador of culture. If you can eat their food, a culture doesn't seem so foreign.

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