Award-winning author Grace Lin leads readers on a fascinating, mouthwatering tour of American Chinese food in Chinese Menu: The History, Myths, and Legends Behind Your Favorite Foods. Her enthusiastic, attention-grabbing narration often makes readers feel as though she’s addressing them directly.
Lin describes American Chinese dishes—which have been adapted and changed from those found in China—as “the flavor of resilience, the flavor of adaptability, the flavor of persistence and triumph. Above anything, this food is the flavor of America.” Chinese Menu is jampacked with chapters that are organized according to course, including tea, appetizers, soup and chef’s specials. Foods like Bird’s Nest Soup, General Tso’s Chicken (he was a real general during the 1850 Taiping Rebellion) and Chop Suey make an appearance. There’s history, too: Lin explains that the fork may have been invented in China, but that as chopsticks evolved from long bronze cooking tools to their wooden form, Confucius advised people to use them to eat instead, believing that knives and forks resembled weapons and brought disharmony to meals. Adding to the offerings are numerous color illustrations, diagrams, a map of China, informative endnotes, an extensive bibliography and an illustrated timeline showing when various dishes emerged. There’s also a recipe for Lin’s mother’s scallion pancakes.
Though all of the above is compelling, what makes this book shine are the numerous retellings of food-related myths and folktales, many of which Lin first heard as a child at the dinner table. A story about the origin of Dragon Well Tea involves a dragon, a poor old woman and a mysterious stranger who knocks on her door. Dumplings are said to have been invented during the Eastern Han Dynasty (24–220), when a doctor named Zhang Zhongjing found an innovative way to treat villagers’ frostbitten ears during the Lunar New Year. Some tales are not for the faint of heart and involve subjects like death and poverty, but throughout, Lin’s sensitive narration remains mindful of her young audience.
Lin’s illustrations are further icing on the cake—starting with the book’s ornate cover showing a young girl holding out a steaming bowl of soup, inside of which readers see the faint suggestion of a bridge and a building, hinting at the tales waiting inside.
Chinese Menu is a treat in every way: an exceptional compilation that can be read all at once or taken out from time to time as a reference while eating certain dishes—a family ritual that all ages will enjoy. Either way, it’s scrumptious!