“The Dim Sum Field Guide” by Carolyn Phillips – an Interview

What exactly is that?

It’s a question that might cross the mind of anyone during their first afternoon of dim sum at a Chinese restaurant. This is a world of steaming carts that float by your tables, where people just order what’s fresh from the kitchen. If you’ve never heard of things like shaomai or xiaolongbao, and have no idea what they look like (or what you just put on your plate), how do you know what you’re eating?

Well, armed with The Dim Sum Field Guide by Carolyn Phillips, you can confidently dine in any dim sum restaurant.

Framed as a “field guide” (not unlike a field guide to birds), this book demystifies one of China’s most beloved culinary traditions and makes it accessible – and fun – for the average diner. You’ll find descriptions of every kind of dim sum (accompanied by cool retro drawings), so you’ll always know what you’re ordering. You’ll also appreciate Carolyn’s guidance on how to order your dim sum, along with the etiquette that everyone should know. It’s also small enough to fit into your purse or pocket, so you can discretely consult it under the table as those dim sum carts go by – and not miss a thing.

It’s my great pleasure to once again introduce you to Carolyn Phillips, author of The Dim Sum Field Guide.

Carolyn Phillips (photo by Jennifer Graham)

Here’s Carolyn Phillips’ bio from Amazon.com:

Carolyn Phillips is a food writer, scholar, and artist. She is the author of the fully illustrated All Under Heaven: Recipes from the 35 Cuisines of China (McSweeney’s + Ten Speed Press, August 2016) and The Dim Sum Field Guide: A Taxonomy of Dumplings, Buns, Meats, Sweets, and Other Specialties of the Chinese Teahouse (Ten Speed Press, August 2016).

Her work has appeared in Saveur, Best Food Writing 2015, Lucky Peach, Gastronomica, Life & Thyme, Buzzfeed, Zester Daily, Alimentum, Huffington Post, Food52, and at the 2013 MAD Symposium. She has appeared on such podcasts as KCRW’s “Good Food,” PRI’s “The World,” and on Berkshire “Bookworld,” and has been interviewed by such outstanding newspapers as the San Jose Mercury News and the San Francisco Chronicle. Upcoming appearances include the Smithsonian, 92nd Street Y, San Francisco’s Litquake, Goop, and Bon Appetit.

You can learn more about Carolyn Phillips at her website MadameHuang.com, and follow her on Twitter (@madamehuang) and Instagram (@therealmadamehuang). The Dim Sum Field Guide is available on Amazon, where your purchase helps support this site.
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Tell us about the inspiration for this book.

My editor at McSweeney’s was working for Lucky Peach at the time, too, and she wanted me to contribute to the fourth issue, which had Chinatown as the theme. I tossed around a couple of ideas with the editors there, including something really off the wall – a field guide to dim sum – and that is the one they chose.

I have to confess, this is the first time I’ve ever heard of a culinary “field guide” — and I find the approach quite fun. Could you tell us more about how you came to envision this as a “field guide”?

Lucky Peach, especially in those first years, was really out there on the edge. No other food magazine was like it. You couldn’t pitch them a story on, say, flourless chocolate cake or blueberry muffins unless it had an unusual hook.

I had this vision of a person taking this nascent field guide into a dim sum teahouse and using it to identify the dishes there, sort of like a birder taking an Audubon guide along. There would be identifying marks, origins, range, variant species, things like that. And then I suggested that I do black-and-white drawings, sort of like the old field guides, to make it even more weird and retro.

It was a hit, and the magazine reprinted it a couple of times, including for the 2013 MAD Symposium in Copenhagen. That was unreal.

In terms of dining etiquette, have you noticed any rules that foreigners tend to fudge when having dim sum?

The biggie is picking up food from a serving plate with the same chopsticks that you are eating with. This really squicks lots of my Chinese friends out. The correct way is to either turn the chopsticks upside-down when selecting a piece, putting it on a plate, wiping off the tops, and then turning them around again to eat. Or, else, just use serving utensils. Shared cooties are a no-no.

Another is ordering lots of food all at once and piling it on your plate. Just get a couple at a time, slow down, savor the meal, and eat the dim sum while they’re still hot. Order more in a leisurely manner and enjoy your brunch. And please, serve others first and then take only one piece for yourself. Serve others tea, as well, and expect to be served in return.

The Chinese are incredibly gracious people, and they love it when you behave like your momma brought you up well. Finally, fight for the check. And if they beat you to the punch, make sure you pay for the next meal.

Your book covers a lot of delicious dim sum that people might not think of when they think of dim sum. For the adventurous palate, any recommendations on more unusual dim sum to try?

It all depends upon the teahouse. Look around and see what most of the Chinese people are ordering. If you don’t know the name of it, just ask a waitperson to get you some of that, and point.

Each of my go-to dim sum places has its specialities. One place makes the best Macanese custard tarts and guiling jelly. Another has amazing roast suckling pig. Another offers the freshest har gow. One place does duck chins in Maggi sauce like no one else. And yet another has these goose intestines that are the texture of gossamer, ethereal flutters of white with sparks of fresh green chile… It really depends upon the place and the chef and my level of hunger.

Finally, I have ask you since you’re such a foodie — what are your favorite dim sum when you’re dining out?

I must have some sort of steamed shrimp dumpling to start. I often judge a place on how well it makes har gow – freshness in the shrimp is vital, as is a snappy texture in the wrapper. I love taro or radish cakes, and honeycomb taro-wrapped pork is a must. I adore good custard tarts of any kind. And roast duck. And braised stuffed doufu.

When all is said and done, if it’s made well, I’m a happy camper!


A big thank you to Carolyn for this interview! Once again, you can learn more about Carolyn Phillips at her website MadameHuang.com, and follow her on Twitter (@madamehuang) and Instagram (@therealmadamehuang). The Dim Sum Field Guide is available on Amazon, where your purchase helps support this site.

“All Under Heaven” by Carolyn Phillips – Your Ultimate Chinese Cookbook (+ 2 FREE Recipes)

If I was exiled to a desert island and forced to bring only one Chinese cookbook with me, it would have to be All Under Heaven by Carolyn Phillips.

For years, I’ve longed for an ultimate Chinese cookbook. An encyclopedic guide to the finest culinary pleasures of China without prejudice to one particular region. A book that would honor the foods of Zhejiang and Shaanxi and Xinjiang as much as the flavors of Sichuan, Hunan and the Cantonese region.

Thanks to Carolyn, that cookbook (All Under Heaven) is a reality – and it’s a must-buy for anyone serious about Chinese cuisine.

All Under Heaven is over 500 pages of the greatest recipes from all over the Middle Kingdom, which Carolyn divides into five regions:

  • The ageless North and Manchurian Northeast (Shandong, Beijing, Tianjin, Hebei, and the Northeast)
  • The elegant Yangtze River environs (Huai Yang, Jiangsu, Shanghai, Zhejiang, Northern Fujian, Anhui, Henan, Hubei, and Jiangxi)
  • The savory Coastal Southeast (the Hakka, Chaozhou, Southern Fujian, Taiwan, Taiwan’s Military Families, Hainan, Guangdong and Southern Guangxi, the Pearl River Delta, Macau, and Hong Kong)
  • The spicy Central Highlands (Sichuan, Hunan, Yunnan, Guizhou, and Northern Guangxi)
  • The arid Northwest (Shaanxi, Shanxi, Gansu, the Great Northwest, Inner Mongolia, and Tibet)

It was such a thrill to see every single province and region included (along with an in-depth introduction to each), which I’ve yet to find in any other Chinese cookbook. Carolyn writes with such passion about Chinese food – whether it’s in the introductions to the regions, peppered with her own culinary experiences, or the recipes themselves – that you can’t help but feel excited every time you open this book. The recipes are also easy to follow and span everything from elegant banquet dishes to simple everyday stir-fries to even those magical essentials for great Chinese food (like dough and breads and sauces and oils). And if you’re a vegan like me, you’ll appreciate the many vegetarian options scattered throughout the pages.

All Under Heaven is so comprehensive that you might never need another Chinese cookbook again.

It’s also the kind of cookbook I wish I could have owned when my husband and I were living in America, desperately longing for the diverse and authentic flavors of the Middle Kingdom. It also would have been fun to prepare some of the more exotic and lesser-known cuisines for my family, introducing them to Chinese food beyond the typical Sichuan, Hunan and Cantonese flavors common to Chinese restaurants in America.

It’s my great pleasure to introduce you to Carolyn Phillips and All Under Heaven through this interview.

Carolyn Phillips (photo by Jennifer Graham)

Here’s Carolyn Phillips’ bio from Amazon.com:

Carolyn Phillips is a food writer, scholar, and artist. She is the author of the fully illustrated All Under Heaven: Recipes from the 35 Cuisines of China (McSweeney’s + Ten Speed Press, August 2016) and The Dim Sum Field Guide: A Taxonomy of Dumplings, Buns, Meats, Sweets, and Other Specialties of the Chinese Teahouse (Ten Speed Press, August 2016).

Her work has appeared in Saveur, Best Food Writing 2015, Lucky Peach, Gastronomica, Life & Thyme, Buzzfeed, Zester Daily, Alimentum, Huffington Post, Food52, and at the 2013 MAD Symposium. She has appeared on such podcasts as KCRW’s “Good Food,” PRI’s “The World,” and on Berkshire “Bookworld,” and has been interviewed by such outstanding newspapers as the San Jose Mercury News and the San Francisco Chronicle. Upcoming appearances include the Smithsonian, 92nd Street Y, San Francisco’s Litquake, Goop, and Bon Appetit.

You can learn more about Carolyn Phillips at her website MadameHuang.com, and follow her on Twitter (@madamehuang) and Instagram (@therealmadamehuang). All Under Heaven is available on Amazon.com, where your purchase helps support this site.

It was a pleasure to sit down with Carolyn Phillips to talk about her book — see our interview below. Additionally, I’ve also included two FREE recipes, reprinted here courtesy of Carolyn Phillips, All Under Heaven and Ten Speed Press. Scroll down and enjoy!
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Tell us about the inspiration for this book.

After eating like royalty in Taiwan for eight years, I was more than a bit spoiled. Taiwan in the late seventies and early eighties was foodie heaven on earth, because so many of China’s great chefs had moved there after the end of the civil war and then opened up fabulous restaurants when Taiwan became seriously wealthy due to the tech boom.

I knew what real Chinese food was supposed to taste like because I was married to a serious gourmet and also worked at many cultural institutions that “required” me to eat out at massive banquets many times a week. I was happily devouring just about every cuisine that China has to offer.

But after we returned to the States, no restaurants offered the dishes we loved. I had cooked a lot in Taipei, and by this time was starting to cook even more out of a genuine hunger for China’s great foods. However I couldn’t find the right ingredients. So I started to figure out how to make really basic things, like salted Shanghainese greens (xuelihong), fermented rice (jiuniang), steamed breads (mantou and huajuan), brined eggs (xiandan), and so forth, in addition to expanding on my repertoire of everyday and banquet dishes.

I started to collect old Chinese cookbooks, as well as more modern ones in Chinese and English, and I noticed that the foods we had come to love in Taipei were rarely found in these modern cookbooks. Plus, whenever we flew back to China or Taiwan, we rarely ate the foods we had learned to enjoy, and sometimes restaurateurs had never even heard of them.

This is a long tale that I talk about more fully throughout All Under Heaven, but long story short, I realized that too many of China’s great recipes were on the verge of being forgotten. As I set out to re-create those dishes, a whole new world opened up. I came to realize that food is so much more than simply fuel for our bodies. It’s the key to a culture and a people. And China’s cuisines turned out to be much more complex and breathtaking that I would have ever believed. Here’s a link, for example, to an article I wrote for Vice Munchies about why there are many more than just eight great cuisines in China. Each realization led to more questions. I started going down various rabbit holes, and my quest for recipes turned into a lifelong passion. The 524 pages of Heaven are just the tip of this particular iceberg.

There’s such a wealth of recipes in a country as large as China. How were you able to choose the best of the best from across the country when there are so many delicious foods in China?

Paring down these recipes was one of the most difficult things I had to do. I initially gave my publisher an outline that included so many dishes they thought I was crazy. The book could have easily been a couple thousand pages long at that rate.

What I did was first figure out the five major culinary regions of China, and then I divided each one up into the individual cuisines. I tried to determine which dishes and ingredients were most emblematic of each cuisine, things that showed off idiosyncratic flavors and cooking techniques. For example, Russian influences in the braises of the Northeast, Central Asian seasonings and grilled dishes in the Arid Lands of the west, and the mellow, ancient Hakka flavors that are shared throughout the Coastal Southeast.

You infused this cookbook and the recipes with many of your own personal experiences with Chinese cuisine, from your remembrances of dinners with your Chinese in-laws to the meals you savored while living in Taipei as a young woman. Could you tell us about one of your favorite food-related personal experiences from the book?

One of the funniest of these happened when I was working as the head interpreter for the National Museum of History. Since few foreigners stayed on long enough in Taiwan to master the language, I worked out a great arrangement with the museum and library, where I could leave after I finished my work and that way help out other cultural institutions in the capital. Nobody realized how much extra work I was taking on, though. I would zoom in a place and zoom out as fast as I could. I was getting the work done, but this really was nothing less than moonlighting at around ten different jobs. Then, one day a great China scholar, Joseph Needham of Cambridge, came for a visit, and the museum hosted a big lunch in his honor. I was called on to interpret, and when I showed up, every one of my bosses was sitting at the same table. It was rather embarrassing, to say the least. Thank goodness the Chinese people are known for their great sense of humor!

Your cookbook is one of the few to profile culinary traditions lesser-known to most Westerners, such as the foods of Tibet and Xinjiang, China’s far North. Why do you think people have largely ignored these cuisines when writing about Chinese food?

It’s not just Tibet and Xinjiang and the North, but just about any region outside of the great metropolises. Henan, for example, was once home to China’s imperial capital, and its foods are an extraordinary mixture of east and west, north and south. Chaozhou and the Pearl River Delta offer foods that always blow my mind with their creativity and sparkling flavors. Guangxi, Tianjin, Jiangxi, Yunnan, Inner Mongolia… these provinces and cities all are home to unique and marvelous foods, but few people have opened up restaurants in the West that highlight these cuisines.

I keep telling people that both sides of this arrangement need to work to get all of China’s 35 on diners’ radars. Restaurateurs have to have the confidence to offer the great foods of their homeland, rather than aim to please everyone with the same-old same-old. They should use excellent ingredients and thoughtful, authentic recipes. Chefs should be trained well and paid well. Diners, though, have to become more sophisticated. They should go to, say, a Beijing-style restaurant and be able to order a genuine Northern meal with confidence.

This really requires learning and work on both sides, though. I mean, look at how Japanese restaurants can charge pretty much what they want for top-shelf kaiseki and sushi meals. At this level the chefs have genuine pride in their work, their restaurants are clean and tasteful, the menus are simple yet perfect, the service is impeccable. Why can’t we have the same thing with China’s great cuisines? Why not a temple to the foods of Hangzhou or Suzhou in New York, a shrine to Guangzhou and Chaozhou’s cuisines in San Francisco, and every place in-between?

What I’m hoping is that Heaven sparks interest in the magical culinary map of China and that more people – especially local people who have access to old people with gastronomical secrets and tattered cookbooks – will come out with great books about every single facet of this massive country’s culinary culture. China is the size of Europe, but with 5,000 years of culinary history. We will never learn it all, but that shouldn’t stop us from trying.

Anyone who digs into this cookbook will find plenty of humor in your writing as well. One of the sections that had me giggling was the revelation that your traditional fermented Sichuan-style pickles actually make farting noises during the fermentation process. Could you talk about that?

Ha! That farting is caused by the carbon dioxide created during the fermenting process. The little beasties in the pickles start to eat away at the sugars in the brine and vegetables, and they poop like every other creature does, I guess. But they are microbes, so what we get is just lots of gas. Traditional Chinese pickle jars have this ingenious pool of water that surrounds the lid. This gives the gas a convenient exit route while keeping out bugs and dust. And so, as the gas builds up in the jar, it turns into little farts as the fermentation process kicks into high gear.

It’s lots of fun to have a pickle jar farting happily on the kitchen counter. No smells, just wet farts.

Could you share with us a few of your favorite recipes from this book and why you love them?

Oh, this book pretty much is filled with my favorites. I’ve been eating the foods of China pretty much on a solid basis for four decades, and please remember that I had to seriously whittle down that recipe list for the final book!

That being said, I could never live without things like Yunnan’s big thin slices of a pig’s head, Sichuan’s dry-dried chicken wings, Guizhou’s spicy mung bean jelly shreds, the Pearl River Delta’s Shunde braised fish puffs, Taiwan’s sesame oil chicken soup, Huai Yang’s crystalline jellied pork, the North’s shaobing, Shaanxi’s spicy biangbiang noodles, the Northwest’s Silk Road fajitas, and Beijing-style smoked chicken.

But that is just off the top of my head. I’m definitely an addict.
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Dry-fried Chicken Wings (Gānpēng jīchì 乾烹雞翅)

Sichuan • serves about 4

(recipe from All Under Heaven, reprinted courtesy of Carolyn Phillips and Ten Speed Press)

Most fried chicken has a thick coating, but these wings, simply dusted with cornstarch, offer a nice, light crunch. When making the sauce, be sure to caramelize the sugar properly: as soon as the vinegar has boiled down and large bubbles start to form, watch the sauce carefully and swirl it around so that it heats evenly. The sugar can burn easily, so this part of the process requires close attention. Once the sauce is done, it should be sticky and syrupy.

Middle sections from 12 chicken wings, or 6 whole chicken wings
1⁄4 cup cornstarch
2 cups (or so) peanut or vegetable oil for frying
6 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1⁄2 inch fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped
2 green onions, trimmed and finely chopped
10 dried Thai chilies, or to taste, broken in half
and seeds discarded, and/or smoked paprika
3⁄4 cup pale rice vinegar
6 tablespoons sugar, or to taste
1 teaspoon toasted Sichuan peppercorn salt, or to taste
2 teaspoons regular soy sauce

1. Start this recipe at least 6 hours before you want to serve it. If you are using whole wings, cut o the tips and use them for stock, and then cut the wings between the first and second joints so that you have 12 pieces. Place the wing pieces in a work bowl and sprinkle the cornstarch over them. Toss the wings in the bowl until each piece is thoroughly coated.

2. Place a cake rack on a large plate or small baking sheet, then arrange the wings, not touching, on the pan. Refrigerate uncovered so the cool air slightly dries out the wings. Refrigerate for at least 6 hours and up to 1 day.

3. Pour the oil into a wok and heat over high heat until a wooden chopstick inserted in the oil is immediately covered with bubbles. Hold a spatter screen in one hand while using the other hand to carefully add half of the wing pieces to the hot oil. Cover with the screen to reduce the possibility of burns and mess. As soon as the wings are golden on one side, turn them over, adjusting the heat as necessary. Remove the wings to a large work bowl once they are nicely browned and cooked through (see Tips). Repeat with the other half of the wings.

4. Drain off all but 1 tablespoon of oil from the wok (or put 1 tablespoon of the oil in a saucepan), place it over medium-high heat, and add the garlic, ginger, onions, and chilies. (Smoked paprika can be used instead of, or in addition to, the chilies.) Toss them in the hot oil to release their fragrance, and then add the rest of the ingredients. Turn the heat to high and quickly boil down the sauce. Just before it turns syrupy and starts to caramelize, taste and adjust the seasoning. Once it is the consistency of maple syrup, remove from the heat. Toss the wings in the sauce to coat them completely. Arrange the wings on a serving platter and eat while hot.

My preference here is for the middle section of the wings, which offers a nice ratio of crispy skin to juicy chicken.

Chicken wings will generally take 10 to 15 minutes to cook through. The wings will be done when they are a lovely golden brown all over. Blood will seep out of the core if they are not completely cooked, so check them in the work bowl before you toss them with the sauce.

Thank you Mission Street Food for this dandy way to coat wings.

Silk Road Fajitas (Báobĭng jiān níuròu 薄餅煎牛肉)

The Northwest • serves 4

(recipe from All Under Heaven, reprinted courtesy of Carolyn Phillips and Ten Speed Press)

As a California kid, I practically grew up on Mexican food. However, I have to admit that as much as I adore the Mexican way with steak and tortillas, I think I prefer this version of fajitas from China’s Northwest. The two styles have so much in common— our wrappers, grilled steak, barely cooked vegetables, cilantro, cumin, garlic, and a pinch of salt—that they almost seem like mirror images of each other. But the green onions, rice wine, and ginger let you know that this dish is a Xinjiang special.

BEEF
12 ounces boneless beefsteak of any kind 2 tablespoons mild rice wine
1⁄2 teaspoon sea salt
1⁄2 teaspoon ground toasted cumin
1⁄2 teaspoon (more or less) finely ground dried chilies 2 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil

WRAPPERS
1 recipe wheat wrappers, or 16 small store-bought flour tortillas*

VEGETABLES
2 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 tablespoon peeled and finely minced fresh ginger
1 sweet red pepper, seeded and cut into thin strips
3 green onions, trimmed and julienned
1 cup coarsely chopped cilantro

1. Trim the fat and any gristle off the steak before cutting it against the grain into thin slices. Cut these slices to form strips less than 1⁄4 inch thick. Place the steak strips in a small work bowl and toss with the rice wine, salt, cumin, chilies, and oil. The steak can be prepared earlier in the day up to this point, covered, and refrigerated to give it extra time to marinate.

2. When it is close to mealtime, prepare the wheat wrappers and grill as directed, or heat store-bought tortillas on an ungreased griddle until they puff up lightly. Place them in a clean tea towel and fold it around them to retain their heat. Just before serving, peel the home- made wrappers apart into thin crêpes if you wish, or leave them as is.

3. About 10 minutes before serving, heat a dry wok over high heat. Toss in the steak and all of the marinade. Sear the steak before dipping the strips over. When most of the pink has disappeared and the meat has a good brown sheen, drizzle the oil around the edge of the meat and then add the garlic, ginger, and red pepper to the wok. Toss these together over high heat. As soon as the peppers start to wilt, remove the pan from the heat and toss in the green onions and finally the cilantro. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Serve alongside the warm wrappers.

*NOTE: All Under Heaven includes a recipe for making your own wheat wrappers from scratch; it was omitted here for simplicity.

Help Test Recipes From First-Ever Chinese Cookbook Covering The Entire Cuisine

All Under Heaven

Fabulous food writer — and fellow yangxifu — Carolyn Phillips (who I interviewed a few years back) has a historic cookbook coming out in May 2015. Titled All Under Heaven, it’s the first Chinese cookbook to cover all of China’s 35 cuisines. Here’s the intro from the publisher’s website:

Vaulting from ancient taverns near the Yangtze River to banquet halls in modern Taipei, All Under Heaven offers a comprehensive, contemporary portrait of China’s culinary landscape and the geography and history that has shaped it. With dozens of recipes and lucid, set-by-step instructions, this is the first cookbook in English to examine all thirty-five cuisines of China. Drawing on centuries’ worth of culinary texts, as well as her own years working, eating, and cooking in Taiwan, Carolyn Phillips has written a spirited, symphonic love letter to the flavors and textures she fell in love with over thirty years ago. From simple fried green onion noodles to Lotus-wrapped Spicy Rice Crumb Pork, All Under Heaven serves as both a handbook for the novice and a source of inspiration for the veteran chef.

So here’s the deal — they need folks to sign up to test out recipes from the book:

You’ll get an exclusive preview of a recipe from the book, a coupon for a preorder discount, and you’ll provide us with essential feedback to make sure no errors sneak by us and ruin your next dinner party. We’ll also post your pictures of the process and the finished recipe to this website…. Cooks of all experience levels are welcome, and we can accommodate any dietary restrictions.

If you’re a huge fan of Chinese cooking and would love to be a part of this, head on over to the All Under Heaven webpage and enter your e-mail right now!