‘A Dainty Feast of Almost Fairylike Perfection’

Anna Mindess reviews:
At the Chinese Table
by Carolyn Phillips

WW Norton & Company, 2021, Buy Local Link

Food and culture are inextricably intertwined.

When the young Carolyn Phillips found herself in Taiwan, overwhelmed by the challenge of mastering Mandarin, it was food that provided the keys to learning and appreciating the language, history, and deep, rich culture of China.

In her new memoir with recipes, At the Chinese Table, Phillips traces the first steps of a lifelong quest that ultimately leads to her award-winning, hand-illustrated cookbook, All Under Heaven: Recipes from the 35 Cuisines of China.

It’s at “a dainty feast of almost fairylike perfection” with Professor Gao, a 78-year-old feminist and scholar, that Phillips first realizes her early approach to learning Chinese culture has been misguided. The writer describes it in intimate detail:

“[There are] doll-size containers of sliced ruby hawthorn paste, pine nuts frozen in golden pyramids of caramelized sugar, like ants in amber, pale ribbons of rice flour bordering slender dominoes of toasted walnuts and ground black sesame, moss colored cakes of mung bean flour stamped with auspicious symbols and filled with red bean paste, bite-sized cookies smothered with toasted sesame seeds, dried watermelon seeds salted and subtly flavored with star anise, and delicate tan cubes of peanut and sesame brittle.”

Those exquisite tea snacks make Phillips realize that, for her, “the key to understanding China can be found in learning to appreciate the foods from a Chinese point of view.” She is aided in her pursuit by J.H., her Chinese boyfriend (later husband), who has a voracious appetite and takes it upon himself to guide Phillips through the breadth of Chinese cooking. For example, she learns about foods deftly masquerading as other dishes: Winter melon is prepared to look like red-cooked pork. A platter of fresh clams served in their shiny shells turns out to be slices of butterflied grass carp that are filled with chopped shrimp and lightly coated with sauce.

As she extends her stay in Taiwan to eight years, Phillips takes on the challenge of learning to cook the dishes tantalizing her tongue by poring through classic Chinese cookbooks and ultimately by getting down to work in the kitchen. Touchingly, one of her best teachers is the neighborhood greengrocer, who schools her in how to select a ripe Chinese radish or the best bamboo shoots.

In this compelling memoir, Phillips also describes the challenges she faced in becoming part of a Chinese family. A poignant scene shows how she finally melted the icy coldness of her future mother-in-law by cleverly preparing steamed chestnut thimbles, one of the older woman’s favorite childhood foods.

The memoir includes more than two dozen recipes, from Crunchy Breakfast Rice Rolls to Garlic Lava Pork. And as in All Under Heaven, Phillips gives shape to her experience through her charming hand-drawn illustrations.

(Trigger warning for vegetarians: Phillips describes how Chinese culture values using every part of the animal and includes graphic descriptions of animal body parts that are not commonly found on American menus.)

Award-winning author Anna Mindess writes about food, culture, and travel. Find her stories and photos at annamindess.contently.com and @annamindess on Instagram.