Jennifer 8. Lee, author of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles
Did you know that one of the world's best Chinese restaurants is in Dubai? Read about this and more in our chat with Jennifer 8. Lee, author of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles.

Editor’s Note: Washingtonian Online moderators and hosts retain editorial control over chats and choose the most relevant questions; hosts can decline to answer questions.

Published March 14, 2008

On Thursday, March 20, at 11 AM, Jennifer 8. Lee will be chatting right here about her new book, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles. Lee, a Harvard grad and New York Times reporter, set out to trace the origins of the fortune cookie. Along the way, she visited Chinese restaurants in almost every part of the United States, exploring questions such as why Jews love Chinese food on Christmas, why most soy sauce doesn’t contain actual soy, and what the greatest Chinese restaurant in the world is. The resulting narrative is full of wit, adventure, and fascinating history. Stiff author Mary Roach described it as “Anthony Bourdain meets Calvin Trillin.”

Lee used to be based in DC (her parties were the stuff of plenty of headlines while she was here), so she knows a lot about the Cuban-missile-crisis talks at Cleveland Park’s Yenching Palace and the history of downtown DC’s Wok n Roll (its building was once the boardinghouse where John Wilkes Booth plotted to kill Abraham Lincoln). One of the most interesting parts of the book is the chapter she devotes to the 1989 kosher-duck scandal at Rockville’s Golden Dragon restaurant.

So if you have a question about the colorful tradition of Chinese restaurants in our area, how Chinese cooking varies in the US versus China, or anything else, Lee is your girl. Here’s our question: Why did she conspicuously omit our area in her search for the greatest Chinese restaurant?

Send your questions in ahead of time in the box below.

Washingtonian:

That's all the time Jenny had for today—thanks everyone for your great questions!

For the full archives of food & drink chats, click here.

DC
What was the most horrible restaurant experience you had while researching your book? The most outstanding?

Jennifer 8. Lee: 

The saddest experience in researching the book centered on a family
that I profile in the book. The family, originally from around the
Chinese city of Fuzhou, moved to rural Georgia to run a Chinese
restaurant. But soon thereafter, they had their children taken away by
the local family services agency for "neglect" because the parents
were so busy running the Chinese restaurants. We did not know if and
when they would get the three children back. It involved a lot of
phone calls to me, arrests, lawyers, hearings, translators, and
fights. Finally, the parents agreed to sell the restaurant and after a
looong time, the children came home. But the youngest son had been
separated from his parents so long that he no longer spoke Chinese.

Best experience. Circumnavigating the globe trying great Chinese
restaurants was an incredible Chinese dining experience. One
restaurant experience still pops up in my head: Wakiya in Tokyo – one
of the most exquisite Chinese dining experiences I've had. It's French
presentation + Japanese delicacy + Chinese flavors. (The New York
version does not hold a candle up to the Tokyo version, very different
menu)

Falls Church VA
General Tso's Chicken is one of my favorite dishes. 1997 I moved to San Diego with another native of D.C. and we discovered most restaurants in Southern CA had never heard of the dish. We found one restaurant that had General Tso's on the menu and were very disappointed to find it was NOTHING like what we were used to on the East Coast. So, is General Tso's something created on the East Coast?

Jennifer 8. Lee: 

As far as my research reveals, the recipe that is commonly "known" as
General Tso's chicken (crispy-fried, sweet annd spicy) was introduced
in New York City in the early 1970s as General Ching's chicken by a
Chef Wang. (And yes, General Ching knew General Tso, he was General
Tso's mentor)

To be honest, as General Tso has marched across the country, it
morphed into different creations (red colored, radioactive orange,
soupy sauce, dry sauce, baby corn, broccoli, carrots) with different
names: General Gau. General Chau, General So, General Tao, General T
(cousin of Mr.?).

My favorite is at the U.S. Naval Academy where he's gone nautical as
Admiral Tso's chicken.

So it's hard to say what is the "real General Tso's" at this point.

Different parts of the country have their "go to" crispy-fried chicken
dish. In the Midwest, particularly around Minnesota, they have Lemon
Chicken, popular at Leann Chin's. On the West Coast, I know they tend
to like Orange Chicken, which is one of the most popular dishes served
at Panda Express.

But basically they all share a bunch of characteristics. They are
chicken. They are fried. They are sweet. All things Americans love.

Washington, DC
What US city do you think has the best Chinatown? I vote for san francisco. Best dim sum I've ever had!

Jennifer 8. Lee: 

So it depends on what you call "Chinatown" – do "Chinaburbs" count?
And it also depends what you mean by "best."

For tourism/history? The best Chinatowns are going to be San Francisco
and New York, because they are so old, are still vibrant, and have
such legacies (they both predate this Chinese government and the
government before that!)

I think New York's Manhattan Chinatown (to differentiate it from the
Flushing Chinatown, which technically has more Chinese people now) is
the one that is the most aggressively still expanding of the core
urban Chinatowns  in large part because of the waves of Fujianese who
have come in the last 25 years. San Francisco now seems to have three
Chinatowns, but the original one still has a fortune cookie factory
which is really popular on school groups.

I think the diversity, concentration and quality of Chinese food (and
services) is best in the greater Los Angeles area, specifically the
San Gabriel Valley, but you can debate whether that is a Chinatown.
Then again, given that much of America is burbs these days, Chinaburb
may be the vision of the future.

If you look at North America more generally, you have to give props to
Richmond, which is outside Vancouver, which is very Hong Kong
influenced. That is where I found the world's greatest Chinese
restaurant (outside Greater China).

Interesting fact about urban Chinatowns, they tend to be located in
really central locations. This is true in New York, Philly, Boston,
Washington, San Francisco.  Why? Because those Chinatowns were started
a long time ago, when the cities were much smaller so they are near
the urban cores – which makes them vulnerable to re-development. (I
have a post here on my blog about it:
http://www.fortunecookiechronicles.com/blog/2007/07/15/chinatowns-land-redevelopment-and-hooters/)

Re: Washington Chinatown, I think one of the more amusing rules is the
rule that all the establishments in Chinatown have Chinese signs. So
Starbucks and Subway use their standard Chinese names. My favorite
though is Hooters, which is 貓頭鷹餐館, or "Owl Restaurant."

Wash, DC
what was the kosher duck scandal???

Jennifer 8. Lee: 

The great kosher duck scandal of 1989 was written up in a lot of
Washington media at the time about a controversy at a kosher Chinese
restaurant called Moshe Dragon in Rockville. It took place during a
nationwide shortage of kosher duck, when a surprising number of
"kosher" ducks appeared in the fridge and the man who oversees the
kosher practices at the restaurant questioned their authenticity. An
investigation by the local rabbinical council okayed the ducks, but
questions were raised by the local Jewish weekly about that decisionn.

Emotions ran high (including a hospital visit, lawyers, a private
investigator). You couldn't make it up. Remember, in Washington, it's
never the crime, it's the cover-up.

Moshe Dragon was sold and it has evolved into what is Royal Dragon?
There are, from what I understand, still a lot of bad feelings about
the incident to this day.

DC
What are your favorite spots for dim sum here and in New York?

Jennifer 8. Lee: 

In New York City's Chinatown I like to go to Jing Fong on Elizabeth
(in part because they have these great greenish transparent sweetish
water chestnut cakes and the over-the-top football-field sized dining
room with neon chandeliers), Golden Unicorn on Elizabeth Street. For
upscale (and more expensive) dim sum, I like Chinatown Brasserie on
Great Jones and Elizabeth, whose chef Joe Ng was "discovered" when he
was working at World Tong in Brooklyn.

In the greater Washington area, the best dim sum is probably at New
Fortune in Gaithersburg. (newfortune.com). That is where I get my
catered dim sum from.

Dupont Circle
Hey Jennifer! Where did you like to eat when you lived in DC? Not just Chinese places...just curious about the spots you (might) miss now that you're living in nyc.

Jennifer 8. Lee:

My two favorite restaurants in DC when I was there were Zaytinya and
Jaleo downtown – both ethnic, not so expensive and fun atmospheres.

Dupont
Did you find any great Chinese food in really surprising places—say, some random great Chinese joint in the middle of Kansas, or something?

Jennifer 8. Lee: 

One of the best Chinese restaurants in the world (very surprising) was
in Dubai, called Zheng He. (Zheng He was a famous Chinese Muslim
sailor). The chef is from Malaysia, and had worked for a good chain in
Singapore. What is the really weird is that most Chinese restaurants
in Dubai don't have Chinese people working in the front, it is mostly
Filipinos. Because the Chinese people in Dubai are in the
import/export business, not in the food business. So the restaurant
actually imported Chinese people to work as bus boys, hostesses,
waiters where one of the top qualifications was not like knowledge of
food service or wine vintages but quality of English. The chef told me
having Chinese waitstaff makes the experience more "authentic."

Also  amazingly good  and unique food (though the Chinese food there
is a bit of an acquired taste): Mauritius, island country off the
coast of Madagascar, which has a history that produced a cuisine that
is a blend of French, Indian, Chinese and island (Curried octopus on
French rolls, or adding cheese to the lo mein)

arlington
Do you have an all-time favorite Chinese dish? What is it, and where's your favorite place to get it?

Jenny 8. Lee: 

So the food I like best in China is from the western province of
Xinjiang (which like Afghanistan, and is where much of The Kite Runner
is filmed, and also Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon). It is called
Uigher (spelled many different way, Uygher, Uyghur)  food and uses a
lot of lamb and coriander and cumin. They have these great lamb pies,
naan bread, thick coarse noodles, chicken and tomato + noodles. Is it
Chinese? It's widely popular in China, almost like their "ethnic
cuisine."

You can't really get it in the United States (in part because there
are not a lot of Uighur immigrants running around opening restaurants
here). But I like it in part because it is so hard to get and thus any
time I encounter it, it reminds me of my year spent traveling and
studying in China (as far west as Kashgar!). That was a precious time
in my life because it was after college, but before 9/11, when the
world changed. So when I eat those foods, it brings me back to sort of
happy carefree period. Food can have very strong memory associations.
For me, that is why I like it.

 

DC
A fortune cookie factory?! That's great, never heard of that. What is the story behind fortune cookies, anyways? How did they get invented and popularized? And who makes up those dang fortunes anyways?

Jennifer 8. Lee: 

Well, fortune cookies don't grow on trees (as far as I am aware --
maybe they do in The Land of Oz? Loved those books). So if not a
fortune cookie farm, it would have to be a fortune cookie factory, no?

Wow. So many questions about fortune cookies. This is actually the
entire arc of my book! I could not possibly do it justice in the time
remaining.  To find those answers out, you have to either read it or
come to one of my multimedia presentations ;) (blatant plug).

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