Chinese restaurants have long been a mainstay of American life. They were the first real "ethnic food" outside of European cuisines in just about every major city. As such, Chinese restaurants were often the first place where many non-Asian Americans encountered Chinese culture and, through the rich variety of dishes, got to experience how diverse and delicious it all is. But few of us know some of the amazing stories behind the items on the menu.
In her book, "Chinese Menu: The History, Myths, and Legends Behind Your Favorite Foods," Grace Lin explores Chinese food lore in an illustrated middle school-aged book that engages foodies of all ages. Lin joined GBH’s All Things Considered host Arun Rath to give a taste of the history behind these delectable delights. What follows is a lightly edited transcript.
Arun Rath: This book just looks wonderful. You've laid it out, actually, like a menu.
Grace Lin: Yes, exactly like you said. There's a dessert section, there's an appetizer section, there's a chef's special section. I like to tell people that when you go to a restaurant and you open up your menu, it's actually really just a table of contents of stories.
Rath: Give us a bit of background on this. What led you to write this book?
Lin: I actually had the idea for this book all the way back in 2004. Most people know me as a children's book author and illustrator. Back in 2004, I made a book called "Fortune Cookie Fortunes", and that's a book for first graders and kindergartners.
But upon doing that book, that's when I first learned that fortune cookies are a completely Asian American invention and that if you go to China, nobody knows what a fortune cookie is. I think most people kind of know that now, but back then, in 2004, that was news to me.
I remember telling a lot of friends and a lot of colleagues about this, and each one of them would always respond to me by saying, "Oh, so fortune cookies aren't even really Chinese." And, you know, that really bothered me because I'm Asian American. I was born here in the United States, but I have roots in Taiwan and I could easily hear people saying the same thing about me. You know, like, "Oh, she's not really Chinese. Oh, she's not really Asian." And that really bothered me.
I felt really bad for the fortune cookie that was getting looked down on so much because I was like, "There's nothing wrong with being an Asian American invention. It's actually something really neat."
I started thinking about all of this American food with Asian roots and how we kind of looked down on all of it. You know, there's kind of this misnomer that Chinese food is cheap food, and it's actually not cheap food. It's food with a really rich and beautiful history and culture behind it.
Rath: Well, it's delightful hearing you talk about it, because the immigrant experience, in a way, is a process of self-invention, right?
Lin: Definitely. One of my favorite stories to tell is the story of the spring roll. Now, the spring roll is called that because most people in Asia eat it during the Spring Festival. However, it was invented because of a Ming Dynasty minister.
During the Ming Dynasty, there was this minister who got his work done twice as fast—so quickly that the other ministers were quite jealous. In fact, they were so jealous they were convinced that he was cheating. So, they went to the emperor, and they said, "That minister is cheating! There's no way anyone can get their work done that quickly."
The emperor was also very curious, and he called the minister to him and said, "How do you get your work done so quickly?" That's when the minister revealed his big secret: he could write with two hands. He said, "Because I can write with two hands, I get my work done twice as quickly."
Of course, no one believed him. So, the emperor said, "Okay, here's nine boxes of records. You have nine days to copy all these records. If you can really write with two hands, then you should be able to do it." So, the minister took the records home, but when he opened the boxes, they were so jammed-filled with records. He realized that if he was ever to get all these records copied, he would have to work day and night without rest, without eating, or else he wouldn't get it done, even while working with both hands.
Now, this minister had a wife who was quite worried about him, especially when they got to around day three of working and working—never taking a break. She said, "Oh, you must eat." And he said, "Oh, no, I dare not stop. I have to keep writing with both my hands." So, she said, "I'll feed you."
She tried to feed him soup and noodles, but they were messy. He said, "No, no, no, I need my hands to write." And she said, "I have to invent a food that he can eat without using his hands." So, she invented a rolled food that she could hold, and he could just bite it off, and that food was, of course, the spring roll.
Rath: That's also one that I want to ask you about—wonton soup. First off, is that also an American Chinese restaurant thing? And does it somehow relate to the creation of the world?
Lin: Yes. I mean, the wonton soup that you get here [in America] will be very different from the wonton soup that you get in China, but it definitely has very strong roots. We call it wonton soup because most of the people who came here, the early immigrants from China, were from southern China. They probably spoke Cantonese and they pronounced it "won-tun," which sounds like "wonton."
So when you look at the etymology of it, it sounds like the word "swallowing clouds". You can translate that as swallowing clouds, which is a beautiful way of thinking about eating soup because the dumplings are clouds and you're swallowing them.
But if you look at the actual written characters and look at the etymology, you'll notice that the word for wonton soup is actually referring to the Daoist creationist story.
According to the Daoists, the way the world was created was that thousands and millions of years ago, there was nothing except for this messy liquid. That is what the broth symbolizes—the liquid of what was here before there was a world.
After thousands and thousands or more years, a white, round thing began to congeal. That's what your dumpling symbolizes, the miasma of the universe. This was actually an egg and inside this egg was a huge, giant man who grew bigger and bigger until finally he burst open the egg. The top of the egg and the bottom of the egg could never, ever be joined again, and when he did that, he fell over and died.
They say that the top of the egg became the heavens and the bottom of the egg became the world that we know. All life on the world is actually from this giant; all his body and his soul became all the living beings on earth. One eye became the moon, one eye became the sun. His head, his arms and body became the mountains; his blood became the ocean and the rivers. The idea being that, when you eat wonton soup, you are just like Pangu, the giant who created the world.
Rath: That's amazing. They really run from the deep and cosmic to flat-out hilarious.
Lin: Yes, they're wonderful stories. It's kind of like a book of Greek myths, but instead it's about Chinese food.
Rath: Well, it's great for everybody, and I think especially for all young people, but especially Asian American kids, being able to read about their own stories.
Lin: Definitely. When I was growing up, there was not really something like this that I could learn from in such an accessible way. I feel like Chinese food is one of the things that tied me to my culture as a child and also ties me to my culture as an adult.