In the United States, there are more Chinese restaurants than McDonald's, Burger Kings and KFCs combined. Chances are, you've got your own favorite wonton spot. The Presidents Bush—41 and 43—do: the Peking Gourmet Inn in Falls Church, Va., which has installed bulletproof glass in front of table N17, just for them. In Iraq, homesick American troops frequented the two Chinese restaurants in Baghdad's Green Zone until they were shut down. Even at the American scientific outpost in Antarctica, every Monday is Chinese-food night (though good luck getting it delivered). Beyond peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches or a burger and fries, there may be no food that's more American than Chinese. The boardinghouse where John Wilkes Booth planned the assassination of President Lincoln? It's now an eatery called Wok 'n' Roll. But as Jennifer 8. Lee writes in her book "The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food," the irony is that much of what we think of as Chinese food isn't Chinese at all. Chop suey is an American creation. Fortune cookies were invented in Japan. And get this: Kari-Out, the largest Chinese restaurant supplier in the United States, uses no soybeans in its soy sauce.
So what, exactly, are we dousing with all that non-soy soy sauce? And if it's no more authentic than a pair of fake ivory chopsticks, why do we even bother to eat it? Lee, a reporter for The New York Times, says the cuisine's appeal lies in its dual nature: Chinese food is at once regional and universal, foreign and familiar. It has been a way for Americans to safely dabble in exoticism while holding on to their own cultural traditions. "In the 1950s," she says, "if you ate Chinese food, China itself seemed a lot less threatening." Although Chinese restaurants abound in other areas—Korea, Peru, India, Japan, Mexico and Jamaica—with large numbers of Chinese immigrants, Americans have them all beat. According to Lee, Thanksgiving is the only slow day in the Chinese-restaurant business, which is why so many waiters and cooks use that day to get married. It makes sense that we are obsessed with this "ethnic" food that has no true ethnicity: from its roots in a flood of immigration that evolved into a mix of cultural contradictions, the story of Chinese food in America is in many ways the story of America itself.
The stream of Chinese immigrants to America has been constant since the Gold Rush in the 1840s and '50s, slowed only briefly by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Prejudice drove the unwelcome immigrants from jobs in the mines and on the railroads, but, as Lee writes, "cooking and cleaning were both women's work. They were not threatening to white laborers." Which is why in 1885 New York City had six Chinese restaurants, but 20 years later there were more than 100. Today, Lee writes, if the immigrants are here illegally and cannot speak English, there's a good chance they'll wind up in New York's Chinatown, where employment agencies post listings from Chinese restaurants around the country. "To these Chinese restaurant workers, who can barely read English, the United States is not a series of towns," Lee writes. "It is a collection of area codes, almost all of which have dozens upon dozens of Chinese restaurants looking for help." Many of these illegal immigrants will have paid a smuggler as much as $70,000 to get them to this country. Such was the case of the 286 illegal immigrants aboard the Golden Venture, a ship that crashed into New York's shore in 1993. Fifteen years later, 90 percent of the immigrants still in the United States were in the Chinese-food business.
They must be shocked by the food they're serving. When you eat out with Lee, you see how dishes have been adapted for American palates. Perusing the menu of a Shanghai-style Chinese restaurant in Manhattan, she asks the waiter about traditional whole-fish dishes. But when the plate arrives smeared with unnaturally bright red sauce studded with chunks of pineapple, she says, "Oh, I guess it's just sweet and sour." Authentic Chinese food often involves bones, shells and eyeballs, "more vegetables, less meat, less oil," she writes—and, one presumes, no fluorescent sauces. But Lee hesitates to label restaurants authentic or inauthentic. "Authenticity is a function of time and place," she says. "I prefer traditional Chinese food. But that wasn't always the case. My taste evolved after I went to China."
But it shouldn't matter if pineapples aren't native to China. Chinese food, whether Cantonese, Hunan, Sichuan or from Beijing, is remarkably adaptive, which explains how it's survived in the trenddriven U.S. restaurant world. In Louisiana, Lee sampled Sichuan alligator and soy vinegar crawfish. In Rhode Island she tried chow mein sandwiches: fried noodles on Wonder Bread. [Editor's note: yuck.] Chop suey has been replaced by beef with broccoli and General Tso's chicken, though in China more people are probably familiar with the colonel's chicken recipe than the general's. So the prevalence of restaurants will likely grow. In the three years Lee spent researching her book, the number of Chinese restaurants in the United States rose from 40,000 to 43,000. Whether the coming years see a surge in popularity of traditional Chinese-style fare or further interpretations of the cuisine (cheesesteak eggrolls, anyone?), Chinese food will continue to represent food for thought about our identity as Americans.
Correction (published March 13, 2008): This story originally said pineapples aren't found in China; it should have said they aren't native to the country.