At dinner tonight, my colleague offered to order wontons. "Wontons?", I asked with almost childish wonder. After four trips to China (and many years of eating excellent Chinese food around the world with my friends of Chinese descent), I had realized that the "Chinese" wonders of my youth, chow mein, chop suey, and General Tso's chicken didn't really exist in China.
I was almost heartbroken years ago, when I learned that the fortune cookie, long the joy and epic ending of every Chinese meal of my youth, was not shipped over the Pacific in containers and a several thousand year delight (nor was anyone really imprisoned in the Chinese cookie factory), but rather likely originating either in Los Angeles, San Francisco, or maybe even Japan (check out Wikipedia for the debate of origin). Fortune cookies were a childhood favorite; I remember several times dragging my cousins to the small Chinese restaurant in Plymouth Indiana to spend my allowance on a bag of these cookies.
Wontons, however, are actually eaten today in China by the Chinese. My host, whose hometown is Suzhou, proudly introduced them to be local Suzhou cuisine. However, at least one other around the table was quick to claim the wonton as a local specialty in his hometown, far away from Suzhou. After some spirited debate, it was agreed that the wonton exists across China, with different spices and meats.
The Suzhou variant of wonton was quite different than what was found on the A Wong's Buffet in Kokomo Indiana. At least lacking a cup or two of oil.
And my colleagues remain perplexed about what chow mein and chop suey could be... Nor does anyone recognize General Tso's chicken.
(Note: I have struggled to capture the wonder that is China in one good blog post, so rather than try to capture it all, I decided to share small experiences).