‘At the Chinese Table’: Memoir Traces Lifelong Love Affair w/ Chinese Cuisine

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.

Here’s Carolyn’s bio from the publisher’s website:

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.

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.

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.

Racist Fears of Chinese Eateries ‘Corrupting’ White Women in Early 1900s

The glut of Chinese restaurants in the US proves just how popular the cuisine is with Americans.

But once upon a time, these eateries were the target of a “war” from the white mainstream, one that represented a continuation of the horrifying yellow peril that first emerged in the late 19th century. Americans used racist and xenophobic narratives that tapped into white fears, including those surrounding interracial mingling.

As NPR reported:

… there was the pervasive idea that Chinese men were lecherous threats to white women. Chinese restaurants were considered “dens of vice,” Chin says, where white women were at risk of moral corruption by way of sex, opium and alcohol.


At the American Federation of Labor’s 1913 convention, organizers proposed that all states should pass laws that barred white women from working or patronizing Chinese or Japanese restaurants for both moral and economic reasons, Chin says.


While the proposed white women’s labor law was never officially enacted, some police officers began patrolling the restaurants of their own volition, Chin says.


For example, he adds, “when there were concerns about white women patronizing Chinese restaurants and when the police thought this was prejudicial to the safety of white women, they would simply order white women out.”

The NPR story also mentions that a case in 1909, where a Chinese restaurant worker killed a white woman named Elsie Siegel working at a Chinese restaurant, further fueled the hostility against these establishments. “‘To be a Chinaman these days,’ one Connecticut newspaper wrote, ‘is to be at least a suspect in the murder of Elsie Sigel.'”

On Sampan,  a bilingual Chinese-English newspaper in New England, a post on this ugly phenomenon in history comes with an example of the kind of racist propaganda that circulated at the time, even in the northern US. Led with an image from the era bearing the title “State Law Being Sought to Save Girls from Lure of Celestial Wiles”, the post notes a number of local media outlets that pushed this narrative, including  a newspaper “claiming it was dangerous for young girls to go sightseeing in Chinatown” and another paper that actually stated in an article “‘The picture of a girl’s ruination through the medium of the Chinese restaurant is too horrible to depict'”. A representative in Massachusetts attempted to pass a bill to “prohibit women from entering Chinese restaurants unless they were over 21 years old and accompanied by a non-Chinese man” — which was later never enacted.

You can read the full stories at NPR and also the Sampan website.

What do you think?

Photo: A Chinese restaurant on Dupont Street in Chinatown in California in 1895.

Guest Post: Video – A Chinese Street Food and Dessert Tour of Singapore

Singapore is a heaven for foodies, and this guest post and video from Pooja and Robbie shows some of the best Chinese street foods and desserts from the city. Let’s take a look!

What’s the best part about being in an intercultural relationship? For me, it’s getting to try new food.

Growing up in an Indian household, when we ordered Chinese food it was the standard takeout options like fried noodles, spring rolls and General Tso’s chicken. My boyfriend wanted to introduce me to some of the local Chinese street food and Chinese desserts that he grew up with in Singapore.

I tried so many interesting dishes including grass jelly, sea coconut sago, cheng teng, salted green bean bun, egg tart, soya beancurd and fried durian. If you enjoy watching a good taste test video, check out the latest Food Vlog from Pooja & Robbie!

Speaking of China is always on the lookout for outstanding guest posts! If you have something you’d like us to feature, visit the submit a post page for details — and then submit yours today.

Separate Plates, Serving Chopsticks: Dining Out in China Changes Amid COVID-19

A few years back, I snapped a photo of Jun and myself huddled with family around a table stacked with more delicacies than all of us could humanly finish in a meal.

Like most meals with relatives, we all had our own rice bowl, but were expected to pluck vegetables or meats from the communal dishes before us, using our own chopsticks.

Sharing meals as a group has long endured as a hallmark of Chinese dining culture, whether at home or while dining out. It made the experience more intimate, a way to reinforce the bond among everyone at the table and a reflection of the communal culture of society.

But in the coronavirus era, the tables have turned on this etiquette, prompting a transformation in dining in public restaurants.

The national health authority in China just mandated that restaurants should serve diners separate dishes of food for each person. This move comes months after areas and regions have moved in this direction due to the outbreak. For example, in February Shanghai had already proposed having separate spoons and chopsticks for serving people from communal dishes, noting “such a change of etiquette allows diners to avoid using their own chopsticks to pick food from the same dishes and therefore reduces the chances of transmission of many diseases.”

This new approach has gotten mixed reviews, as China Daily notes in its March 2020 story A Question of Table Manners:

Recently a photograph published in China promoting the idea of dining alone and with one’s own plates and dishes set off a storm a lot bigger than you’ll find in a Chinese teacup. Some saw the suggestion almost as sacrilege, running totally counter to the idea of communal eating that goes back centuries in Chinese culture, while others wondered whether, like the near disappearance of the Chinese tunic suit, it was just another sign of changing times.

Still, the same story highlights that Chinese dining norms have evolved throughout history, and they didn’t always involve communal dining from the same plates. An op-ed titled Social distancing on the dining table too offers a good summary:

Separate dishes for everyone is not something new for China; the earliest records show people having their meals from separate dishes. Even during big feasts, people had a table to themselves. And there is nothing to suggest this practice was because of an epidemic. Instead, this helped personalize the menu for everyone and avoid the wasting of food.

It was not until the Jin Dynasty (265-420), when nomadic tribes from the northern regions migrated to China, that people started having their meals from common dishes on a shared table. Some historians say the food for nomadic tribes, say a whole sheep, was difficult to divide and serve. Besides, tribes rarely had metals to fashion enough pots.

So in China, a switch to a more separate, personalized experience might merely be reverting to a historical norm, but for a different reason — to fight the coronavirus.

Of course, nowadays restaurants do far more than offer separate dishes and utensils for serving. A friend of mine recently patronized a restaurant in Beijing. The eatery checked her temperature, required her to register her name and phone number with them, and had her and her dining companion sit diagonally from one another at the table. What she described jives with everything I had read on the local Beijinger blog about the guidelines for dining out in restaurants amid COVID-19.

As for Jun and myself, for now, we’ll stick with our favorite way to “dine out”, one we’ve often indulged in long before the pandemic began — home delivery.

What do you think?

Food Is the Language of Love in My Mother-in-Law’s Kitchen

Tiny potatoes from my mother-in-law’s garden still litter the floor in the corner of our kitchen, ready to serve up their starchy delights in several more meals. Slices of crispy fried shaobing, my mother-in-law’s specialty flatbread, and heaping bags of the local smoked tofu from her village still cram the shelves of our freezer. We’ve barely dug into the jar of my mother-in-law’s mouthwatering homemade pickled kale, which perks up just about every stir-fried and stewed dish you could imagine, and we still have two more we haven’t even opened yet. And in the third drawer down next to the sink, bundles of rice noodles from my mother-in-law’s pantry have fed us for weeks already.

Whenever I gaze upon this abundance of flavors and foods for our next lunch or dinner, it reminds me of my mother-in-law and her boundless love for us, most often translated through treasures from her kitchen.

Like most Chinese parents, she would never say “I love you”, a phrase constantly showered upon me during my childhood. But over the years, I’ve found it in flavors of her lovingly prepared dishes, as well as in the items from her kitchen, pantry and garden that she always urges us to take home, with a forcefulness no less potent than any verbal declaration of affection.

Food has become a delicious means to bind us closer together, across cultures and continents. One of my favorite things to talk to my mother-in-law about is her home recipes, which I’ve come to miss since moving to Beijing. Sometimes we’ll call her on the phone, where I’ll ask her how to prepare potato cakes, a tempting stir-fry that turns these root vegetables into buttery cake-like morsels tossed with hot peppers and garlic. Or inquire about how much of the pickled kale I should use to make her classic tofu with pickled vegetables, a mouthwatering take on bean curd that transports me right back to her kitchen in the village.

Whenever she lovingly repeats every step with care and concern, making sure I understand her techniques, and patiently answers my questions, I know what she’s really saying to me. And it warms my heart, even long after we’ve said goodbye.

I’m in Awe of How My Husband Eats Fish With Bones, Unshelled Sunflower Seeds & More

(Photo by Alpha via https://www.flickr.com/photos/avlxyz/3225213462)

Whenever my husband and I happen to be back at the family home in rural Hangzhou, China, you can almost guarantee there’s fish for dinner, prepared just how my husband likes it. His mom stews the whole fish with ginger, garlic, soy sauce, hot chili peppers and Shaoxing wine, and finishes it with a sprinkle of fragrant green onion.

And if there’s fish on the table, you’ll also find something else next to my husband’s rice bowl – a neat little pile of fish bones. No, he didn’t pull the bones out first and then eat the fish. He sorted the meat from the bones with his mouth, something that amazes me to no end.

Of course, it’s not just fish with bones. I have a similar sense of awe for the way he deftly devours unshelled sunflower seeds. By the time I’ve clumsily cracked open one of them and spilled out the seed, he has easily consumed three or four of them.

I’ve also witnessed his mouth do other extraordinary things at the table, including removing the rough skin from Chinese jujube dates after chewing on them and separating the rough fibers from celery. Every time he does something like this, I’m filled with wonder, thinking, “How does he do it?”

But then again, I feel the same way about the rest of his family, whose dinner table socialization included a how-to on managing some challenging comestibles.

In the America I grew up in, the kind of fish my husband’s family serves up – from head to tail – was never on the menu. I wanted my fish batter fried and served with a heaping side of French fries and hush puppies, just like those greasy fast seafood dinners. No muss, no fuss and no bones. I was so picky on this point that I even shunned my dad’s favorite fish snack – kipper snacks – because of the bones.

This ethos – that food should be as convenient as possible – applied to much of what I ate. It wasn’t just bones I didn’t care for (which turned me off chicken wings and ribs). Unshelled seeds and nuts were a no-go as well. I even got fussy about fruit when it had seeds inside; I would rather pick the watermelon seeds out of my slice first, rather than burden my mouth with the task of spitting them out.

Looking back, though, I now wonder if I missed out on something critical. Would I have enjoyed food much more if someone had schooled me in the many ingenious ways for eating challenging things? Would I have been more adventurous as a child and more willing to try new things?

As an adult, I’ve been playing catch up on that score. I now happily devour watermelon and oranges with seeds. I’ve learned it’s not so hard to eat unshelled nuts and seeds with a little practice (and, sometimes, patience).

But as for bones, I’ll never have the chance to exercise my mouth in that regard. I’m a vegan after all. And as much as I’ll always admire my husband’s ability to process those bones in his mouth, a part of me is relieved I’m exempt. What can I say? I’m still a little picky at heart – and still don’t like bones. 😉

“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.

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!

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.

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.

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

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

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.

Guest Post: Food Preferences and Dining Etiquette in a Southern Chinese Home

I’m thrilled to share this guest post from Maria Deng, who authored AMWF Couples — A Canadian Perspective, one of my favorite AMWF guest posts on this blog. This time she writes about a topic I’m sure you all love — food!

Do you have a story about dining in your home or another guest post you’d like to see featured here? Have a look at the submit a post page to learn how you can follow in Maria’s footsteps.

My husband’s family is from the province of Guangdong, which is located in Southern China. In this part of China, they speak Cantonese. I have always known dinner to be 吃饭, which translates to ‘eat rice’. When I first had dinner at my husband’s home, I noticed many differences in not only the food served however, in the dining etiquette as well.

Pot Of Apple Soup, Prepared By Maria’s Mother-In-Law
Pot Of Apple Soup, Prepared By Maria’s Mother-In-Law

The Importance Of Soup

I noticed that my husband’s family had a small bowl of 汤 (soup) at the beginning of each meal. My 家婆 (mother-in-law) or 老爺 (father-in-law) would say 喝汤 (drink soup) before drinking. I began searching for the spoon at my place setting however, my husband had told me that soup is consumed by bringing one’s bowl up to their mouths. Afterwards, the pieces of meat or other items in the soup would be eaten with chopsticks once the liquid was finished. After the first few times of eating at my husband’s home, I then realized that this was much easier than eating soup with a spoon. Now, I always drink my soup in this fashion, without even giving the spoon a second thought.

An Entire Fish, Prepared By Maria’s Father-In-Law
An Entire Fish, Prepared By Maria’s Father-In-Law

Fish Eye

I also saw an entire fish being served for the first time at the dinner table. I didn’t know that fish was served in this fashion however, upon seeing it, I was told by my husband that 鱼 (fish) is quite important in the Chinese culture. I was surprised though when I first saw my husband eating the fish’s eyeball with such ease, something that to this day, I have yet to muster up the courage and try.

Pass The Toothpicks

Using toothpicks to clean one’s teeth after a meal was something I had never seen before. I noticed this happened at all of my husband’s family functions. When cleaning the teeth with a toothpick, one would place their hand in front of their mouth, which made it impossible to see the mouth or teeth. It was definitely a cultural difference for me as I had never seen that before however, I have become accustomed to it, welcoming the gesture with comfort.

Steamed White Rice

I always noticed a rice cooker filled with steamed, white rice on the counter-top when dining with my husband’s family. At first, I said to my husband, “is there any sauce or dressing that goes on top of this rice?” My husband then laughed, stating that in the Chinese culture, eating steamed, white rice was normal. I have now learned to eat steamed, white rice at times however, I do tend to slip in some sauce, which immediately brings a friendly roar of laughter from my husband’s family.

Maria ‘Attempting’ To Use Chopsticks
Maria ‘Attempting’ To Use Chopsticks

Chopsticks Or Fork?

Using 筷子 (chopsticks) was definitely a struggle for me. I had used chopsticks in the past when eating sushi however, rarely when eating other types of food such as rice, meat, or vegetables. I often struggled when dining with my husband’s family, which made me feel embarrassed at times. Luckily, I was given a pair of ‘beginner chopsticks’, which helped in making the necessary transition. However, I still struggle to this day when eating certain foods. Luckily, my mother-in-law places a fork on the table in-case needed.

These are just a few of the differences I have noticed, with many more as each dinner passes. However, embracing these differences have allowed me to form a deep appreciation for the food and etiquette one’s culture can bring to the table.

Have you noticed any food preferences or dining etiquette differences in the home of a friend or partner? If so, I would love to hear about them!

Maria Deng currently resides in Ontario, Canada with her husband Joey, who originally hails from Guangzhou, China. She loves reading about AMWF relationships, and looks forward to writing more about her experiences being married to a Chinese man.

Speaking of China is always on the lookout for outstanding guest posts! If you have something you’d like us to feature, visit the submit a post page for details — and then submit yours today.

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!