That first mouthful of authentic mapo tofu, just days after my arrival to the central Chinese provincial capital of Zhengzhou, still shines among the favorite memories of my early years in China. The sauce, seasoned with chile peppers and the numbing Sichuan peppercorns, danced across my tongue in a perfectly spiced symphony of flavors that I had never encountered in any tofu dish at a Chinese restaurant in the US.
There was a lot at that time I still didn’t understand — I could barely speak Chinese, and was even trying to navigate a very confusing new work situation. But my taste buds had already begun falling for the country through every small but delectable bite, uncovering a whole new world of Chinese cuisine that still entrances me to this day and has shaped my life in countless ways.
For Carolyn Phillips, the author of the new memoir At the Chinese Table, Chinese cuisine did far more by firing up a passion that paved the way for her eventual career an acclaimed food writer. (See previous interviews with Carolyn about her encyclopedic Chinese cookbook All Under Heaven and her Dim Sum Field Guide.)
At the Chinese Table retraces her lifelong love affair with Chinese cuisine, with her Chinese husband JH, a scholar and gourmet, playing a pivotal role in the narrative. Told in striking detail with plenty of self-deprecating humor, the story starts in Taiwan and takes the reader on a very personal journey punctuated by many mouthwatering Chinese dishes. Along the way, a few family secrets get uncovered as well, adding a pinch of mystery to a memoir that makes for a truly appetizing read from start to finish.
It’s my great pleasure and honor to feature Carolyn Phillips, author of the new memoir At the Chinese Table.
Carolyn Phillips is a food writer, scholar, artist, fluent Mandarin speaker, and author of the James Beard–nominated All Under Heaven, the first English-language cookbook to examine all thirty-five cuisines of China. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.
What inspired you to write this memoir?
I wrote a short story about my late father-in-law called “Monkey Eve” that was included in Best Food Writing 2015. That was my first suggestion that I might be onto something, and it encouraged me to write another one about my late mother-in-law. That second story, “Good Graces,” in turn became a finalist for the Beards’ M. F. K. Fisher Distinguished Writing award. I felt like I was onto something, so I shaped those two stories around a proposal for my food memoir.
Your husband and his family both have prominent starring roles in the narrative. How did they feel about the book?
My husband has been so wonderful and supportive. He told me to write it the way I wanted, and I interviewed him over many days about what he remembered, who all these people in his family tree were, and then I tried to string everything together in a way that made sense. (Believe me, that’s much harder that it sounds!) I did give J. H. the option of scratching out whatever he didn’t like. But he loved it and was fascinated by all the things I uncovered about his family, especially regarding his beloved maternal grandmother, Laolao. My happiest day was when J. H. told me that the things that had never made sense in the past now fit together like perfect puzzle pieces.
It took a considerable amount of bravery on his part to accept that Laolao had quite possibly been a concubine, rather than a wife. Even now, people want to hide that sort of thing, as if being a concubine were somehow shameful. But it wasn’t. And it wasn’t like she ever had a choice in the matter. Women were treated as chattel back then. They rarely ever had the opportunity to decide who they would marry or what sort of lives they would be allowed to pursue. Laolao’s family broke her will and her feet. They deliberately kept her ignorant and illiterate. Like I wrote in my book, they designed a doll that would not talk back. But then when her life was turned upside-down, Laolao summoned the bravery and cleverness she needed to support her mother, two brothers, daughter, and herself. She was a phenomenal person, and I can only hope that I’ve done her justice.
I also figured out that J. H.’s maternal grandfather was not Han Chinese, but rather Hani, an ethnic minority in Yunnan. That was also a big secret, but when J. H. told one of his sisters about this, she was rather happy about it.
Your memoir begins with your college years in Taiwan in the late 1970s, when the island first tempted your taste buds with its array of delicacies. What was it like to revisit this time in your life through writing this book?
It was so strange and so wonderful. Many memories had been lost to me, but I found that I could summon them through food. Little details floated up as I thought about things like my host mother’s golden cabbage fritters (page 26 in At the Chinese Table). And then, as I recalled the smell of them, the taste of them, and the feel of them on my lips, I started thinking about what these sorts of foods meant and why Auntie Lee cooked them and why they turned out to be so unforgettable. I mean, we all know how aromas can trigger some of our earliest memories, but I’m such an enthusiastic eater that anything having to do with food does the same thing for me!
As I prepared to write At the Chinese Table, this turned into an enormous sorting process, something like finally getting around to cleaning out the basement and sorting out the tons of boxes that have been gathering dust for decades. People who had been long dead returned to my life, and it was the most wonderful gift ever.
Being afforded the opportunity to write a memoir is inexplicably beautiful because I got to relive my life and see old acquaintances and dine with beloved friends and try through the perspective of age to make sense of my time here on Earth. I never really set out to learn Chinese or live in Taiwan or marry a Chinese guy or write books about the cuisines of China. It was all happenstance. Especially in my first few decades, I was incredibly passive. Life just sort of happened to me. I was more like a leaf on a river, rather than some stalwart pioneer. It’s only in retrospect that I can see the zigzaggy path I took and where it led me.
Your own drawings — many of food, but also much more — delightfully decorate the pages of the memoir. Why did you choose to include these in the book?
Why, thank you! Publishers seem to regard my books as sort of package deals nowadays, a combination of writing and illustrations. But I’m not complaining. It’s incredibly nice to have people welcome both my writing and drawings.
This all started with All Under Heaven, which was originally contracted with Dave Eggers’s publishing house, McSweeney’s in San Francisco. They champion artists—especially graphic artists—in their books and periodicals, so I included some sample drawings in my proposal, and it seemed a great fit. They did ask if I wanted photographs, and of course I said yes, but then they said that the cost of producing the book would then go up dramatically (due to the glossy paper, full color printing, etc.), so I had to make a choice: much fewer recipes plus photographs, or lots more recipes with no photographs. That was an easy decision for me to make. I think I considered this choice for all of three seconds!
My next book, The Dim Sum Field Guide, developed out of an illustrated article I had created for the Lucky Peach “Chinatown” issue. Lucky Peach turned that article into a handout for the MAD Symposium in Copenhagen, which was a thrill. Not too long after that, I wrote a proposal for The Dim Sum Field Guide, sent it to Aaron Wehner, Ten Speed Press’s publisher, and he said, “Sounds cool.” I’ve also created illustrations for things like my history of teahouses and dim sum for Gastronomica, so I guess I’ve carved out a strange little niche for myself.
Every chapter in the book ends with two recipes. Could you tell us which one is your favorite and why?
Boy, that’s like asking me which of my children I love best. When it comes to the recipes that I’ve made more times than I can count, that would have to be my Taiwanese fried pork chops (page 24), as well as the garlic chile sauce (page 147) that is created out of fresh red chiles. We devour those chops in mere minutes, and whenever I have that chile sauce around I slather it on everything. They both are definitely addictive.
From an emotional point of view, my most beloved recipe would be the black sesame candy wafers (page 202) because they remind me so much of my late father-in-law. He and I had a very unusual but good relationship because neither of us like to chitchat much, and yet we both love to cook. Because of this, we spent many happy hours shopping in LA’s old Chinatown, which is where he lived, and then creating traditional Hakka dishes in his tiny kitchenette. He taught me so much about the art of cooking, about patience in the kitchen, and about inserting history and culture into the things that you eat. Cooking is such an ephemeral art—many hours of preparation and cooking that then disappear in a matter of minutes. But even so, he made me understand that such transitory pleasures deserve our care and attention.
Could you share with us a culinary memory that didn’t make it into the pages of your book, but still tantalizes you over all these years?
Oh goodness, there are so many. I was limited to 75,000 words, but initially gave my editor 150,000! Plenty was pared away, believe me. I could do a whole book on nothing but Taiwan’s night markets, or its open-air markets, or the amazing restaurants that offered food from all over China in its most stellar incarnations, or meals I ate with famous people, or some of the silliest and/or most awful things I’ve ever been served. (And they’re not what you might imagine…)
One thing that got cut was the delicious Chinese obsession with enjoying every last morsel of a fish. The first time this happened for me was at my host family’s house, when, at the end of the meal, the mother sucked the eyes and brains out of a whole fried pomfret. She was smiling happily the whole time, but she must have noticed my nervousness, so the next time she had me eat the cheeks, which were firm yet delectable little nuggets, and then we slowly worked our way up the skull. It really made me appreciate how much we Americans throw away that is perfectly edible and quite good.
And with J. H. I found that just about any fish served in a sauce would find itself returned to the kitchen halfway through the meal. Not that there was anything wrong with the fish. Rather, he’d ask, say, the chef at a Sichuanese restaurant to debone the fish and then simmer squares of fresh doufu and “red” doufu (coagulated blood) with the rest of the sauce and fish. What a divine way to devour every last drop! And West Lake vinegar fish at a Shanghainese place was also always returned to the kitchen halfway through dinner so that the sauce and remaining shreds of fish could be tossed with a bowl of steaming hot fresh egg noodles and a sprinkling of shredded ginger. I can still taste that to this day.
When I had the McSweeney’s people over for lunch one day—they were sort of test-driving my recipes while they considered my proposal—I served them a whole fried flounder that had been deep-fried until the fins and tail had crisped up into crunchy chip-like frills. Two of my guests were ethnic Chinese, and they actually tussled over the head. I was thrilled. And I knew I was going to finally get a book contract!
What do you hope people take away from reading your memoir?
I’d love it if non-Chinese came away from this book with a feeling of closeness for Chinese people. It would be so wonderful if they could realize that Chinese and Westerners have so much in common, that we’re just different flavors of the same species. The Chinese people and their cultures and their cuisines have so much to offer to us, and we have so much to learn from them. We should be building bridges and embracing each other and dining at communal tables and swapping jokes and, yes, marrying each other too.
It’s been my joy to live for the past many decades in a world that is in many ways very Chinese. My husband and I have been together for over 46 years now, and he has magnified my world in more ways than I can ever count. If I could have my way, more Westerners would seek friends and lives that are Chinese. And to do that, they would have to learn Chinese fluently. It wouldn’t be easy. In fact, it would be ridiculously difficult, probably the hardest things you could ever ask someone to do. But with fluency comes understanding. All the things that keep people apart—ignorance, hatred, fear—then disappear. Of that I am certain.
If all of this sounds intimidating, know that the first and easiest step toward achieving that sort of understanding is learning to appreciate all of China’s cuisines in their many remarkable manifestations. It’s thrilling to sit down with a stranger and share some fresh-baked flatbreads in Xinjiang, or discuss the aromas of fresh oolong teas on the eastern coast of Taiwan over a bowl of perfectly cooked rice, or talk with a bunch of retired Chinese chefs in Chengdu about how foods used to be created. The payoffs for showing even an inkling of curiosity about Chinese culture are remarkable.
Many thanks to Carolyn Phillips for this interview! You can learn more about Carolyn and her memoir at her website Madamehuang.com. Her new memoir At the Chinese Table is available at Amazon, where your purchases help support this blog.