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40,000 eggrolls to go

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One thing led to another and Lee’s nationwide search for a hundred-plus small slips of paper grew and grew, until suddenly she was on a globetrotting mission to discover the truth about fortune cookie origins, which then morphed again into a quest for the who-what-where-and-why of the ubiquity of Chinese food in America.

The one word that sums up Lee’s findings on her rollicking adventures is “ersatz.” That’s not meant as a judgment, just a statement of fact. What we eat (and how we eat) in American Chinese restaurants is anything but “real Chinese food,” Lee, a second generation Chinese-American discovers. “It’s American. It just looks Chinese.”

For one thing, there’s no actual soy in American soy sauce – and the vast majority of those clear packets with brown liquid are manufactured in a Jewish, family-owned factory in New Jersey.

Even the Chinese takeout containers – originally used to hold shucked oysters in the early 20th century – are available only in the US. They’re not even sold in neighboring Canada. (And how about this for Chinese restaurant trivia: In takeout boxes on the East Coast of the US, wires run the short length of the box, while on the West Coast they run the long way.)

But most important, Lee tells us, fortune cookies do not exist in China – unless they’ve been imported from these American shores.

“The Fortune Cookie Chronicles” is packed full of such ah-ha tidbits, delicious secrets, and fun facts. But where Lee shines most is in the narration of the stories of the real-life people she meets on her worldwide discovery tour.

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