“Chinese” Food

The Huffington Post recently ran a piece called “Food TED Talks: The Eight Best Lectures on Eating and Food Policy.” For those who haven’t seen a TED Talk, essentially, they’re videos that run from 10-20 minutes long and they feature guest experts who speak on any number of thought-provoking issues.

This Monday, January 23, is Chinese New Year, a genuinely Chinese holiday that has been celebrated for centuries. So what better time of year than this to look at genuinely not-Chinese Chinese food?

One TED Talk from 2008 features New York Times journalist Jennifer 8 Lee (yes, her middle name really is “8”) talking about the ideas behind her book and blog, both called The Fortune Cookie Chronicles. Her writing and her talk explore what gets called “Chinese food” across the world. We’ve heard all this before, right? What we call “Chinese food” is totally unrecognizable to most Chinese people? But Lee discusses the idea in greater detail and with greater historical research than I’ve heard before.

For example, in one part of the video, she talks about that staple of the Chinese restaurant, the fortune cookie. My favorite part is probably the clip she shows of her offering and explaining fortune cookies to people in China, who taste it with tentative curiosity and are surprised that there’s a “prize” inside. As it turns out, according to Lee’s research, the first fortune cookies are actually a Japanese invention and were imported to the US with Japanese restaurants, not Chinese. However, with the internment of so many Japanese inhabitants of the US during World War II, Chinese restauranteurs saw an opportunity to capitalize on a popular product.

I won’t repeat the whole video, but it’s definitely worth a watch!

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