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Six ‘Chinese’ foods that aren’t

Fortune cookies, soy sauce packets, General Tso’s chicken and more

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  'Chinese' food, the American way
Aug. 14: Jennifer 8. Lee, author of “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles,” reveals Americanized “Chinese” foods that aren’t really from China.

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TODAY
updated 11:36 a.m. ET Aug. 14, 2008

Everyone loves fortune cookies at the end of their meal ─ but you won’t get them in China. New York Times blogger Jennifer 8. Lee, author of "The Fortune Cookie Chronicles," reveals the origins of some popular menu items.

Fortune cookies
Fortune cookies are from Japan. Fortune cookies are essentially unknown in China. In fact, a Brooklyn-based company tried to introduce them to China in the 1990s, but gave up, saying the cookies were “too American.” So where do fortune cookies originally come from? Japan. The precursor to the fortune cookie is still made in a handful of small family-owned bakeries in the Kyoto area, near the Fushimi Inari shrine. The cookies are larger, and flavored with miso and sesame, which gives them more of a nutty flavor and brown color.

The cookies were introduced in pre-World War I California by Japanese immigrants who called them fortune tea cakes at that point. A great shift in production happened around the time of World War II, when the Japanese were interned and the Japanese family-run bakeries were shut down. At the same time there was a spurt in Chinese fortune-cookie manufacturing, which transformed it into a Chinese restaurant standard. By the late 1950s, 250 million fortune cookies were being made each year. The cookies were used in the 1960 presidential campaign and in this year's Barack Obama campaign. The summary of the cookie could be put thusly: The Japanese introduced it. The Chinese popularized it. Americans consume it.

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Soy sauce packets
Soy sauce contains no soy! The American soy sauce found in the little plastic packets usually does not contain soy as an ingredient. Soy sauce from Japan and China, such as Kikkoman, is generally brewed from soybeans and wheat. However, the list of American soy sauce ingredients includes water, salt, caramel color, corn syrup and hydrolyzed vegetable protein. An effort by Asian countries to introduce international standards for soy sauce in the last decade was abandoned after several years of negotiations, in part because of lobbying from the Americans.

Duck sauce
There is no duck in duck sauce, nor is it really even served with duck, which is usually served with hoisin sauce. It's a very American condiment. On the West Coast, it's sometime referred to as plum sauce. It's made with dried Turkish apricot (not a commonly used fruit in China).

General Tso’s chicken
General Tso is known for war, not chicken. General Tso's chicken is a dish that is all but unknown in China. If you go to General Tso's hometown in Hunan province, almost nobody, even those hundreds of his family members still there, know of the dish. So who was General Tso and why are we eating his chicken?

General Tso, also known as Zuo Zongtang, was a famous Qing-dynasty military hero who played a large role in quashing the Taiping Rebellion, which was sparked by a Chinese man who thought he was the son of God, and thus the younger brother of Jesus Christ. About 20 million people died in the Taiping Rebellion, which still makes it the largest civil war in world history. General Tso played a large role in keeping China together. The recipe we now recognize as General Tso's chicken was actually introduced in New York City in the early 1970s by a Chinese chef who had moved here from Taiwan as part of the Hunan cuisine revolution. It became a runaway hit in part because the dish resonated with the American palate: It was chicken, it was fried, it was sweet, and a bit spicy. So while in America, General Tso is like Colonel Sanders and is known for chicken and not war, in China, he's known for war and not chicken.

Egg rolls
Egg rolls are not Chinese. Spring rolls are Chinese, but spring rolls are small and light and delicate, also stuffed with vegetables and pork and seafood. Egg rolls are bigger and pimply. They are sort of like the original super-size me. Actually, when Chinese people refer to an egg roll, it usually is the egg-based, flute-shaped pastry with a typically yellowish, flaky crust, often eaten as a sweet snack or dessert.

Takeout boxes
Takeout cartons are an American invention. Those white takeout cartons that are a symbol of Chinese-ness across advertising and the United States? They are so American they are not even really used in Canada (which is more of an aluminum and Styrofoam market, as one carton executive put it). The white boxes were originally invented in the first half of the twentieth century to hold  shucked oysters, and are thus are often called "pails" in industry lingo. Carton executives say that sometime around World War II, they Were adopted by Chinese restaurants for takeout, in part because they could hold hot liquids.

One piece of trivia: On the East Coast and the West Coast, the boxes are oriented in different directions. On the East Coast the wire runs down the short length, while on the West Coast, they run down the long length. The two styles mix only in the greater Houston area.



© 2008 MSNBC Interactive