“Deconstructing the layout of China was difficult, but food showed me the way.” At the Chinese Table is memoir by Carolyn Phillips, whose previous book cataloguing 35 regional cuisines of China was nominated for a James Beard award. Books on Chinese cuisine abound, and recently Fuschia Dunlop lay claim to being the Westerner most embedded and prolific on regional Chinese cuisine through attending cooking school in Chengdu, so it was fascinating to learn how Phillips became intrigued by Asia enough to become a self-taught expert in Chinese food, under the tutelage of her very particular epicure husband.
Phillips ended up in Taiwan instead of Tokyo by chance, and unlike the other college exchange students, she stuck it out despite the profound disorientation of the complete immersion, which will sound familiar to most immigrants and some travelers:
I’m trapped in a place that makes no sense and I have no way out. It’s like one of those fairy tales where the trees close behind me after each step and only a murky path forward shows itself. I feel my way along the dirt, stumbling over rocks … Part of the reason for my inability to concentrate is that I am always hungry and dizzy, for, to put it bluntly, my guts are in serious rebellion. Everybody says with authority that this is to be expected with any newcomer—and I’m definitely considered one, even after two years—for shui tu bufu: the water and soil are proving incompatible with this body of mine.
Perhaps because of this hunger, she is able to sense (and eloquently share) minute details of taste:
Pouring some more tea into my hostess’s cup before refilling my own, I take a cautious sip and notice that, thanks to the dried shrimp [nibbled earlier], a scent of honey combined with plum blossoms has now supplanted the last echoes of green. I thoughtfully chew on the rest of the shrimp and revel in the way my nose and tongue are reacting to these unusual sensations. Pretty soon I’m paying more attention to what is happening inside my delicate white teacup, too, as the tea cycles through a series of colors—pale straw, caterpillar green, deep olive, buttery yellow—and its own progression of aromas, with shades of perfume, bitterness, and summer sun gracing each thimble of the ever-changing brew.
Once she meets the man who will eventually become her husband, she becomes more attached to Taiwan. In part due to his gourmand tastes, she slowly hones her tastebuds and cooking skills. He introduces her to varied cuisines in remote restaurants run by other Chinese settlers in Taiwan, as many of China’s most talented chefs of the time followed the wealthy across the Taiwan Strait with Chiang Kai-shek. In order to recreate some of these dishes, they hunt for old cookbooks, and he helps her interpret the Chinese as well as assessing the resulting dishes. One sign of her acceptance in the neighborhood is the greengrocers’ willingness to educate her on the best vegetables and how to prepare them, as well as the hawkers’ scolding if she is absent for more than a few days.
“Where were you all last week? It’s been forever! I thought you were mad at me … I threw in a couple of my pork buns just because you’re my favorite customer.” I laugh and tell him not to tease me. “I mean it,” he says. “Don’t disappear on me again. I worry.” When it comes to guilt trips, no mother in the world can hold a candle to the finely honed skills of my Chinese bun-seller.
As she develops her cooking skills, she is also able to thaw the façade of the extremely proud mother of her boyfriend; on their first meeting, she prepares
carefully honed weapons from North China: two dozen butter sesame cookies, a large pot of creamy sweet walnut soup, and a red-cooked chicken with mounds of black mushrooms and mealy potatoes just in case she stays long enough for dinner, plus a pyramid of homemade steamed buns rolled up into twists around specks of green onions, dry-fried sesame seeds, and ground toasted Sichuan peppercorns.
This array is in addition to painstakingly preparing chestnut pastry, lizi wowotouer, that were also the favorite of Dowager Empress Cixi. Over time she is able to glean more information about her husband’s family, illuminating the path they took to Taiwan from Tianjin and Yunnan. The effects of the 20th century’s turmoil on individual families is partly reconstructed from these conversations and her own research, and growing acquaintance with Chinese who migrated to Taiwan. For most, food nourishes the present as well as representing home and better times. Phillips’s relentless curiosity and evocative style make this memoir mouthwatering and heart wrenching by turns.