Meet Madame Huang
Reporter Anna Mindess finds out how
a taste of pressed duck launched Alameda resident Carolyn Phillips
on a cookbook career
By Anna Mindess | Photos by Scott Peterson
I’m in the kitchen of Alameda resident Carolyn Phillips watching her practiced hands wield a wooden Chinese rolling pin to roll out disks of dough. She forms each disk into “a fried egg shape,” and with nimble fingers, deftly wraps each around a bit of sweet bean paste. Smoothing the buns, she places them into a bamboo steamer to cook. When the dumplings emerge, she carefully snips the tops of each to form bunny ears or hedgehog bristles, adding red dots or black sesame seeds for eyes and noses, gradually bringing the buns to life.
With these same hands that knead dough and shape bunny dumplings, Phillips also wrote and elegantly illustrated an impressive 524-page cookbook, All Under Heaven. The exquisite volume, with its 300+ recipes illuminating the 35 cuisines of China, came out in August, 2016. Within a few months, the book had drawn praise from critics at the San Francisco Chronicle and the New York Times, among many others.
Called an academic and a scholar for her thorough research and deep devotion to her subject, Phillips is anything but a stuffy know-it-all. Phillips expertly acts as both wise auntie and enthusiastic cheerleader for the myriad delights to be found in Chinese cuisine, both through this book and in her concurrently published Dim Sum Field Guide.
How did a girl with Northern European roots, who grew up in what she describes as “a general-issue working class childhood in the ‘burbs of San Jose back when it was a very boring place” pen what has been called “the ultimate Chinese cookbook?” Phillips answers this and other questions as I watch her make dumplings.
When did you first fall in love with Chinese food?
My mom loved Chinese and Japanese food and taught me to use chopsticks to eat in these restaurants because “the food would taste better.” She was right. My Proustian moment occurred when I was a preteen and my dad took me out to dinner. He told me I could order anything. Having never eaten duck before, I got the pressed duck. This steamed bird had been flaked, formed into a patty covered with water chestnut flour and almonds, fried, and topped with plum sauce. It was insanely good. I ate the whole thing myself with nothing more than some rice and hot tea. I think that this dish subconsciously drew me to China and the possibility of eating the best foods in the world for the rest of my days.
When did you start cooking?
Since I lived with my mother, who worked all day as an elementary school teacher, I was encouraged to do more in the kitchen. But it was not until Julia Child’s show came on PBS that I became seriously hooked. She opened up a whole new world of cooking. Suddenly I was making brioche and coq au vin, bugging my mom to buy red wine and real butter. Julia was my first mentor.
Why did you move to Taiwan?
During high school, I studied Japanese on the weekend at a local Buddhist church and got hooked by Asian culture. I went to college in Hawaii, and when all the lower level Japanese classes were full, I took beginning Chinese so that I could start to study the characters. Then after college I went to Taiwan to really learn the language and eat great food.
In your eight years in Taiwan, what was it like to discover these living culinary traditions?
At first I didn’t have a clue what was going on. My idea of the food when I got there was the Americanized “Chinese food” I had grown up on, and so I honestly was initially surprised at the lack of fortune cookies and sweet ‘n’ sour.
I lived with a local family the first year, and the mom was an excellent Taiwanese cook who showed me the basics. But it was not until my third year there, when I hooked up with the guy who would eventually become my husband, that the cuisines started to make sense. J.H. Huang was, and still is, a dedicated food lover, and he took me out to places I never would have noticed, restaurants and food stands that reveled in local Chinese cuisines, like Hakka, Shanghai, Chaozhou, Beijing, Shanxi…. It was a glorious puzzle that I only started to put together when I got a job as an interpreter at both the National Museum of History and the National Central Library a year or two later.
How did your job as an English/Mandarin interpreter lead to food forays?
The directors [of the two institutions] were major connoisseurs of good food, and part of my job as an interpreter was to accompany foreign guests when we went out to feast with them after work. The museum director in particular loved to eat well, and as a result, we wound up at all of Taipei’s gastronomic palaces. Spectacular, spicy cuisines like those of Hunan and Sichuan were juxtaposed against the intensely refined dishes of Zhejiang and Jiangsu or the more hearty foods of the cold north. I started asking why, and who, and what, and whenever the museum and library folks couldn’t answer all my questions, I hunted down traditional cookbooks. That got me even more serious about China’s amazing cuisines.
During this time period—the late ‘70s and early ‘80s—Taiwan was undergoing an economic and technical revolution. Money flowed into the island, and with this enormous infusion of cash came the desire to eat well. I was truly in the right place at the right time.
How did Taiwan end up with all those great chefs?
In 1949, following the Chinese Civil War, the Nationalists had retreated to the island of Taiwan. They had brought along many of the country’s more well-heeled citizens, who encouraged their favorite chefs to head for Taipei, too. You have to remember that fine cooking and any sort of sensuous living was severely frowned upon in the newly communist Mainland, and this was especially true during the excesses of the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976); Taiwan’s tech revolution is what directly led its myriad of relatively dormant Chinese food cultures to spring up and blossom. Money was flowing into the island, and suddenly the desire to eat the best this country has to offer was matched with the resources to pay for it.
As a result, I was dining on China’s haute cuisines, as well as the finest of home cooking and street foods. It was heaven. While at these feasts, I would find myself entranced by a certain dish and then try to figure out how to make it. I’d ask friends, mothers of friends, elderly folks, hawkers, the market ladies, and approachable cooks how they did certain things, and since the Chinese are some of the kindliest and most generous people in the world, they’d generally humor me and tell me their secrets. If I couldn’t find things out like that, I’d turn to those Chinese-language cookbooks of mine.
Who taught you to cook in the Chinese tradition?
My first Chinese cooking instructor was the mom in the family I lived with the first year, Auntie Lee. But I really learned the most from my father-in-law, Lt. Col. Huang Lung-chin, who was an excellent home cook. He was a Hakka fighter pilot from the southern province of Guangdong who remembered the way his mom used to make things, and his dishes were always superb. I was the only one in the family who, like him, loved to cook and didn’t care to talk much, so we would hang out silently in the kitchen while he prepared the family feasts. I mostly learned by watching him. I’d consider him my main mentor when it comes to Chinese cooking.
How did you decide to write a book that describes the entire scope of Chinese cooking traditions?
I started to gnaw on that idea most days after work. (I was a federal and state court interpreter of Mandarin at the time.) Gradually I figured out a culinary map of the country that made sense to me and to anyone else I showed it to. My major discovery was that there are five major geographic and culturally related regions that logically encompass the entire country’s food traditions, and within them lie the 35 individual cuisines.
What was your goal in writing the book?
I worry that the food traditions of China are rapidly disappearing. It started in Mainland China in the late ‘50s, when the country’s millennia-old culture was replaced with revolutionary thought.
China has this incredibly long, complex, and brilliant patchwork of food cultures, but during those few short decades, the country’s restaurants were closed to all but a lucky few. Meanwhile, starvation and food shortages became rampant, cooks found themselves out of work, the traditional culinary hierarchy of master chefs who trained apprentices (much as in France and other “haute” food cultures) was destroyed, and people lost touch with the culinary ways of their ancestors. Thousands of years of culinary culture vanished, just like that.
Those chefs who had made it to Taiwan were able to preserve their knowledge and skills for a couple more decades, and I was fortunate enough to enjoy their cooking. But as these great masters have gradually passed away, the quality of the regional cooking in Taiwan has also suffered because few have been properly trained to take their places. Every time we go back to either China or Taiwan, we find less and less great food to enjoy. The fabulous restaurants we used to visit on a weekly basis are either gone or have lost their luster. Western ideas like fois gras, red wine, and truffles are shorthand for fine dining in high-end restaurants now, even though they rarely fit well in the traditional cuisines. It’s scary. And this is precisely what drove me to write All Under Heaven, because China’s food traditions are too good to give up.
I remain optimistic that the people of China will realize what they are missing and try to regain much of their wonderful heritage. It’s really way too precious to lose, and we all have so much to learn from it.
Meet Carolyn Phillips (aka Madame Huang), the author of All Under Heaven: Recipes from the 35 Cuisines of China. Watch her make Chinese steamed buns in the shapes of bunnies and hedgehogs. Find the recipe here.
China’s 24 Solar Seasons
Most Westerners consider the four seasons to be a natural way to divide up the year, but during the time she lived in China, Carolyn Phillips came to see it differently.
“China used to be mainly an agrarian society, where nature’s ebb and flow were observed for millennia. The people noticed certain patterns in the earth’s relationship to the sun and moon, and so they divided up the lunar year into 24 solar seasons of around two weeks each. Names like Vernal Equinox, Balmy Days, and White Dew describe the main natural phenomena of each season, and the calendars specify what kind of activity would be particularly lucky or unlucky on each day, from weddings and funerals to moving beds and planting trees.
“China’s great cookbooks, like the Sui Garden Gastronomy from 1792, talk in detail about what sorts of vegetables or fish should be eaten in each season, which foods are healthy at those times, and how those foods should be prepared. Seasonality is rightly esteemed now by many Western chefs, but when it comes to eating food at its prime, the Chinese were ahead of the curve by a couple of thousand years.”
Examples for the spring quarter include:
Startled Insects (Jingzhi), March 5, 2017
Thunder and lightning rumble through the skies during this spring period, waking up even the smallest of creatures.
Vernal Equinox (Chunfen), March 20, 2017
This marks the time when days and nights are equally long. Warm days will finally start to usher in the urge for fresh greens and sharper flavors.
Clear and Bright (Qingming), April 4, 2017
Clear skies and fresh, warm air as the weather becomes noticeably warmer and green plants begin to appear.
Rainfall of the Grains (Guyu), April 20, 2017
The spring season winds down as summer appears on the horizon. The early crops show their shoots. The increased rainfall is good for the grains.
All Under Heaven: Recipes from the 35 Cuisines of China
By Carolyn Phillips, copyright © 2016
Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.
Images reprinted with permission of the author and publisher
Freelance writer Anna Mindess follows immigrant food journeys and stories of cities where food and locale deliciously intertwine. A frequent contributor to Oakland Magazine, KQED Bay Area Bites, and Berkeleyside, she also works as a sign language interpreter and combines her food and culture interests by leading tasting tours in ASL. Find more of her writing at eastbayethniceats.com.