In Chinese Menu (Little, Brown, Sept., ages 8–12), Newbery and Caldecott Honoree Grace Lin details the origins of the most familiar dishes in American Chinese restaurants through “appetizing full-color gouache and pencil illustrations alongside lush, mouthwatering prose,” according to PW’s starred review. It’s not a cookbook, the author explains, though she does include a recipe for her mother’s scallion pancakes. Instead, she focuses on the history and lore behind egg rolls and spring rolls, Buddha’s Delight, and many more. Lin spoke with PW about her inspiration, her research process, and her favorite Chinese menu order.
How did this book come about?
While researching Fortune Cookie Fortunes, I learned that the fortune cookie was an American invention. When I would share this fact with people, they would say, “Fortune cookies aren’t really Chinese” in a tone of disgust. That bothered me. I’m an American-born Asian who struggled to embrace my own heritage and culture. I could easily hear somebody say the same about me: “She’s not really Chinese.” I’ve now claimed my identity as an Asian American and take pride in it. American Chinese food, like the fortune cookie, is something to be looked at with affection, not with derision.
I decided to push forward on this book during the pandemic. Chinatowns were being decimated. The media were showing images of wet markets and saying, “That’s disgusting; it’s unhygienic.” It was so pointedly racist. This book shows that this food has roots in China but is American food. By rejecting it, Americans are rejecting a part of their own culture.
What was involved in compiling all the historical and folkloric background of these dishes?
I’ve been collecting the stories for years. Some of them are ones that my dad told, and he’s got a big imagination; nothing’s wrong with that, but I wanted some semblance of historical relevance. When I got down to business, I hired a research assistant from Smith College named Isabel Brandt. I don’t read Chinese, and I needed somebody who could read and speak Chinese. I gave her a list of stories and asked her to find secondary sources. I had English resources, but Isabel was able to get ones that were Chinese or from China. I wrote versions that I thought would be most interesting to a middle grade reader. In my endnotes, I note all the different versions and my changes.
What are you most excited for readers to discover, regardless of their age?
My hope is that when they eat Chinese food, they think of these stories and it helps them enjoy their meal much more. I also hope it makes readers realize that this food is American food. Chinese immigrants had to make chop suey palatable for the American taste buds. That’s not a bad thing; it’s just different. So many people disparage Americanized Chinese food, but its flavors are the flavors of immigrants. It’s the taste of resilience, of persistence, of triumph over hardship. That’s actually the best of America.
Do you have a favorite American Chinese dish?
Moo shu. It wasn’t in my mom’s repertoire and we never had moo shu pork or moo shu chicken at home. I’d come home from college and we’d go to the one Chinese restaurant in our town in Upstate New York, and I’d always order the moo shu pork. I still do. There’s something about wrapping it up and that warm feeling I get. Even if it’s not well done, I still love it.