Books

Words alone do not make book

One surprising morsel that Jennifer 8. Lee serves up in "The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food" is that there are 40,000 Chinese restaurants in the United States, more than twice the number of McDonald's.

Lee, an American-born Chinese -- called "ABC" -- began a three-year quest "to unravel the nagging mysteries of Chinese food in America" after a statistically improbable number of people won second prize in a 2005 Powerball lottery, most of whom had gotten their numbers from fortune cookies.

As Lee quickly discovered, American Chinese food -- from chop suey to General Tso's Chicken -- bears little resemblance to authentic Chinese cuisine. American Chinese food is sweeter, meatier and often fried. Real Chinese food is bonier, less oily and has more pickled and dried ingredients. "Chinese restaurants in America tend to shy away from anything that is recognizably animal," Lee writes.

Lee's fluency in Mandarin Chinese -- along with reporting skills honed as a New York Times metro reporter -- enables her to pursue myriad aspects of the Chinese food business, including the production of billions of fortune cookies each year; the crippling pressure on fortune-writers to coin new pearls of wisdom; the ubiquitous white takeout carton; and the clear packets of soybean-free "Frankensauce chemical counterfeit" that many Americans know as soy sauce.

Lee's inquiries -- spanning six continents, 23 countries and 42 states -- are at times jumbled and overwhelming. In an effort to tie together an unwieldy book, she returns repeatedly to the history of fortune cookies, using their infiltration into Chinese cuisine as a bellwether of other cross-cultural changes.

More compelling are her stories, often adapted from articles she first wrote for the Times, about Chinese immigrants in the restaurant business. Readers are likely to increase their tips after reading about the plight of Chinese restaurant workers, who, lacking English and papers, are often "treated like farm animals or machines."

"The Fortune Cookie Chronicles" offers a rich medley of flavors that would be more delicious had the chef exercised restraint: A clearer chronology and narrative line would allow each ingredient to sing. As it stands, Lee's concoction, although tasty, smacks at times of chop suey -- that catchall dish that translates from Cantonese as "odds and ends."

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