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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Can you predict the next Chinese foods to breakout into mainstream American Chinese cooking?
Nope. I’m not even going to try.
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.
Do you have any favorite restaurants inside predominantly Chinese countries?
Xi Yan in Hong Kong, a private kitchen.
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.
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.
What are some dishes you love in China but can’t get in America?
Uigher food like dapanji.
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.
Why a decimal point after 8 in your name?