Tuesday, August 5, 2008

The strange message in a fortune cookie

I've been eating Chinese food ever since I was a kid and too young to get much beyond the mushy pleasures of chicken chow mein, usually accompanied by egg rolls and fried rice. Although I'm by no means an expert, I've since learned something about Chinese cuisine and am delighted that my home city, Denver, now has a few exceptional Chinese restaurants, one of them being the China Jade, which specializes in Szechuan-style dishes such as twice-cooked pork and eggplant with basil. I'm a fairly adventurous eater, but remain leery of any dish involving pig's intestines. I mention this only because many "authentic'' Chinese restaurants -- and the China Jade in one -- feature dishes that can offer a steep challenge to sensibilities that are squeamish about offal-related dishes. I've never tasted a chitterling, and probably never will.

But most of China Jade's fare need not be accompanied by offal alerts: As one of the restaurant's patrons told us during our last visit, the restaurant's food has punch, all of it delivered in a no-frills store front that appears to be a converted fast-food franchise. Actually, China Jade is located in a strip mall in Aurora, Colorado. Odd ethnic retail combinations lately have been popping up in such smaller malls. The same strip of stores that's home to China Jade also features a Ukrainian grocery and a French bakery.

Take all this as a lengthy preamble to the real subject of this post: fortune cookies.

Even authentic restaurants such as China Jade offer these more-or-less tasteless treats, usually dumping them on the tray that arrives with the bill. After the spicy enticements of a China Jade meal, a fortune cookie seems the ultimate anti-climax, and the messages most cookies deliver usually are as disposable as paper napkins. Fortune cookies generally proffer harmless aphorisms, optimistic predictions and flattering personality assessments. But every now and again, one is dazzled by the sheer lunacy one finds inscribed on a thin pice of paper that has been implanted in a cookie.

Years ago, a friend and I were dining in a Denver Chinese restaurant of no particular distinction: He received this fortune, which up until last week, was my favorite: "A close relative will travel in outer space." As far as I know, the cookie's prediction never came true. Still, it was instructive: A mixture of specificity and outlandishness make for the most amusing fortune cookies.

So here's one that I received at the China Jade last week: "Don't kiss an elephant on the lips today." If this admonition has special meaning in Chinese culture, it eluded me. But I particularly loved the fact that it was only a one-day warning. Presumably, I safely could have kissed an elephant on the lips the following day. I didn't put the theory to the test, but receipt of this warning reminded me that no cookie should be left uncracked. You just never know.

And while we're on the subject of Chinese food, a book recommendation: Must reading for enthusiasts, Fuchsia Dunlop's "Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper, A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China" (W.W. Norton & Company, 320 pp., $24.95). Dunlop, a Brit, trained at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine. Her book is a good-humored ramble through a great cuisine and though Chinese culture as experienced by an eager and engaging Westerner. A quote: "Texture is the last frontier for Westerners learning to appreciate Chinese food. Cross it, and you're really inside." Among delicacies that Dulop sampled: tripe, chicken's feet and a clawed turtle's foot.

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