Jennifer 8. Lee – The Interview


Several days ago I conducted an email interview with Jennifer 8. Lee. Having recently read her new book, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, I had lots of questions I wanted to ask her. Yesterday, I shared with you how Jenny’s book resonates with me as I explore my own food roots. Today I’d like you to see Jenny’s complete interview.

  1. What were some of your reactions when you first went to China and discovered authentic Chinese food?

    I thought it was funny how they served rice at the end of many restaurant meals, whereas in America we eat rice with our meals. I think someone explained that in China, rice is considered filler, so you only eat it at the end. But in America, where there is plenty of food, there is no connotation of that, so we eat rice with our meals. We always had to ask for the rice to come with our dishes. What I loved was that I discovered a lot of the Muslim influence, like lamb, kabob, daoxiaomian, which are not widely available in the United States.

  2. In your book you contend that Chinese food has become the comfort food of America. What is comfort food? Is it the food of one’s own culture or is it something that one grows up with?

    Comfort food is something that brings you back to a safe psychological place. And since many people grew up eating Chinese food in America, these dishes remind them of childhood, or happier times, or routines, or consistency.

  3. You expressed a lot of self-discovery in this book. At what point in your research did you realize you’re discovering your roots? Have you learned anything more since your book was published?

    I think when I met all the Chinese-Indians, Chinese-Peruvians, Chinese-Jamaicans, Chinese-French, I realized just how American I was, in the same way they were Indian, Peruvian, Jamaican, French etc. I came to understand who I really was. Since the book has been published, I’m fascinated by how many people say it’s clear that I am passionate about Chinese food. It comes across with my talk and my writing. And they are attracted to that.

  4. Chinese restaurants in the West have always been identified with cheap fast food. What would it take for them to make that “great leap forward” to become fine dining?

    In countries were there is not a lot of Chinese people – like Turkey or the Czech republic – Chinese food is considered fine dining because it is scarce. There are not a lot of Chinese immigrants in those countries. Cheap Chinese food follows Chinese immigrants who are not educated and thus cook to earn a living. So in a way it’s too late to raise the bar, you can’t “erase” the low-educated Chinese immigrants here. I guess you could wait until they all assimilate and don’t run Chinese restaurants anymore, but then more and more immigrants continue to come.

  5. Can you predict the next Chinese foods to breakout into mainstream American Chinese cooking?

    Nope. I’m not even going to try.

  6. In your book you listed an impressive list of favorite Chinese restaurants in the world. Have you encountered any others since the book’s publication you’d also include?

    I hear another restaurant in Dubai, called Noble House, has opened up and it is supposed to be amazing. I have not been there.

  7. Do you have any favorite restaurants inside predominantly Chinese countries?

    Xi Yan in Hong Kong, a private kitchen.

  8. You talked about the fusing of Chinese cooking with other cuisines. Can you share your most and least favorite pairing?

    I don’t have any. I think Philadelphia cheesesteak roll is funny. Looks like an egg roll on the outside, but Philly cheesesteak on the inside. Chow mein sandwich is also funny. Those crispy fried noodles with gravy in a hamburger bun.

  9. What are some of the most exotic Chinese food you’ve eaten?

    Dog meat. It’s funny, in America cows and pigs and chickens when slaughtered don’t bother me, because they all look the same, which makes them generic. But dogs are all different shapes and sizes, so it gives them a more individual look at the dog butchers.

  10. What are some dishes you love in China but can’t get in America?

    Uigher food like dapanji.

  11. Have you heard of the three sets of dishes in a Jewish home: 1) for dairy 2) for meat and 3) for Chinese?

    Yes. Sometimes it’s five: Dairy, Dairy Passover, Meat, Meat Passover, and Chinese.

  12. Why a decimal point after 8 in your name?

    Why not?

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6 Comments

  1. Posted April 8, 2008 at 8:50 pm | Permalink

    I had read a few reviews of this book but can’t find it in China. Speaking of interviews, I saw you quoted in SH magazine in a feature about Jiangsu cooking. Here’s the link in case you haven’t seen it already: http://www.shmag.cn/feature/jiangsu

  2. Posted April 8, 2008 at 9:01 pm | Permalink

    The one thing I should dispute though, from reading some of the reviews and her blog, that she writes rice in China is always free. My experience in China now is that rice is almost never free, even the first bowl. (Ah, the growth of capitalism!) Also, food delivery are increasingly popular here, especially in cities like Beijing. It’s rather ironic that America adapted Chinese food, and then China in tern adapted the American idea of delivering that food.

  3. Posted April 8, 2008 at 9:36 pm | Permalink

    Diana (AppetiteforChina), Thanks for the link to SH magazine article. I knew Chris’ article was to appear this week in print. I was not aware that it was to be published on-line as well.

    China absorbs capitalism ideas like sponge! It was not surprising food delivery is becoming popular. Last autumn I was in Shanghai and noticed the food delivery site Sherpa.com.cn, which started in Shanghai, had expanded to Suzhou. I believe they are starting Hangzhou delivery soon.

    Culinary traditions have always been dynamic and absorb influences from other cultures. For example chili peppers and peanuts were not native to China, or Asia for that matter. Yet Chinese cooking embraces both ingredients. I am not suerprised to see young Chinese chefs beginning to experiment with Western techniques. Culinary art is fascinating that way.

    I do, however, believe understanding the basic techniques of a particular cuisine is paramount to intelligently interpreting it in a fusion or blending concept.

  4. Posted April 11, 2008 at 4:44 am | Permalink

    It’s worth noting that rice was eaten *with* the meal (ordered by the jin, paid for with ration coupons) in China in the mid-80s, and as late as 1990 (my last visit before the 2nd half of the nineties). Yet another indication (in addition to the fact that meat dishes in contemporary China have a much greater ratio of meat to veg than they did, back then) of how diets and views of rice have changed as the country has prospered economically.

    (Interestingly, rice is still eaten with the meal in other, more economically ‘developed’ Asian rice-eating countries, like Thailand, Malaysia, and Japan. I wonder why not in China.)

  5. Posted April 11, 2008 at 8:46 am | Permalink

    Rice is generally still eaten with a meal at home even now in China. It is however common to either completely skip rice or serve it at the end of a meal in a more formal or restaurant situation. This custom is pretty much standard in all predominantly Chinese community (including Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan).

    I also believe there is a certain economic status factor in minimizing the starch consumption in a meal. At least this is the case in the Chinese culture. (Not always the case for other Asian culture.) The increase affluence in China did make it possible for the more prosperous area, such as in the city, to increase the meat and vegetable in their meals.

    The starch course is not always a rice course. It is sometime replaced by noodles of steamed bread. Especially in a birthday celebration, the noodle course is absolutely necessary. The long strand of noodles symbolizes longevity.

  6. Caroline
    Posted April 16, 2008 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

    Very interesting thread about rice and economic prosperity. I am Korean-American. When I visited Korea in 2002 with my mom, we noticed the much small bowls of rice served with meals. In fact, I was told by a Seoul resident that one of the ways they could tell a local from a visiting Korean-American was by the amount of rice consumed: Korean-Americans almost always asked for more rice. :)

    Thanks for the interview. I just ordered my copy of Lee’s book.

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