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At the Chinese Table

A Memoir with Recipes

by Carolyn Phillips

At the Chinese Table by Carolyn Phillips X
At the Chinese Table by Carolyn Phillips
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    Jun 2021, 304 pages

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  • Borderlass, Belmont, MA
    A Memoir with Recipes: A Recipe for a Good Memoir
    For "foodies" like me, American writer Carolyn Phillips' new memoir is a must-read. From its first pages to its last, her engaging yet crystalline prose enchants and enriches her readers' lives through the sharing of her life's journey. Most notably, in the beginning, we see a young Caucasian-American woman studying, assimilating, and falling in love during the mid-1970's in Taiwan - an historically important period wherein a virtual "food Camelot" of the "best of the best" Chinese regional cuisines and their learned practitioners coexisted there, primarily Taipei, within this condensed space and time. As the book progresses and her journey is brought to the present, she emerges into the acclaimed food writer, Mandarin speaker, and interpreter/translator and artist she is today. She gives her epicurean Chinese husband and his ever-present family their due throughout the book.

    To her credit, Phillips's depiction of Chinese culture - replete with "food ways," pertinent history, and long-held family customs and traditions - enhances the narrative while gracefully taking center stage. Her scholarship doesn't seek to dominate or detract from the story of her life as she matures and blossoms, yet the breadth of it is critical not only to her story but our understanding of her contributions and well-earned legacy. The accompanying straightforward recipes add value and interest. In short, Ms. Phillips has achieved the perfect balance of elements for creating a most readable memoir - a good recipe for a good memoir, if you will.
  • Becky H
    A delight for eyes and mouth
    This utterly delightful book combines memoir with recipes. The memoir portion consists of a fascinating account of the author’s years in Taiwan sparked by mouthwatering descriptions of the food she eats as she learns Mandarin and falls in love with the country, the cuisines of China and J H Huang. Along the way we are introduced to her imperious future mother-in-law who is won over with a time consuming, challenging recipe for a treat that hadn’t been tasted in 40 years by her now blissful MIL.
    Because I love to cook as much as I love to read and eat, I tried several of the recipes. Because I live in a city with a thriving Chinatown I was able to find most of the authentic ingredients. The recipes cover everything from beverages to main dishes to side dishes and condiments to even an odd “dessert” of “Coffee Gelee.” Simple strong coffee gelled with Knox unflavored gelatin and then coated with sweetened condensed milk became an odd favorite of my family. Not so simple but equally appreciated were Strange-Flavor Peanuts, Chilled Winter Melon and Bear Paw Doufu. The recipes were easy to follow once the ingredients were obtained.
    I highly recommend this book both as memoir and as cookbook. 5 of 5 stars
  • Rory A. (Ventura, CA)
    A delightful memoir
    "At the Chinese Table" is really something wonderful, and it's not only because of the food that Carolyn Phillips has experienced and now expressed to readers so poetically. It's the history behind it, her family history, which takes a bit of time to get into, much like a great Chinese feast.

    Her stories from the 1970s and 1980s, in meeting fellow food lover J.H. Huang give greater appreciation for the cultures we can learn about and cross into, to embolden ourselves with new life that may not have been possible with our only one. Sometimes it takes two, and what better place than Taipei for Phillips? She got this experience and we get to revel in all of it. It's the kind of memoir that makes you wish it was a pop-up book of sorts, with the dishes themselves appearing right in front of you. Oh if only.
  • Janice P. (South Woodstock, VT)
    A Feast
    This riveting memoir of the author's lasting love affair with China—with its history, culture, cuisines, and with the man who eventually became her husband—is the liveliest portrait of a nation I've ever read. Carolyn Phillips went to Taipei straight out of college to learn Mandarin; over 40 years later, she shares her journey of becoming the first writer in English to introduce all 35 of China's cuisines, a consequence of her effort to become a part of her boyfriend's family, to win their acceptance by cooking their favorite foods. Through their stories, with humor, grace and a straightforward style, Phillips weaves in Chinese history, its changing present, its social structure, and above all its food.

    She is a more adventurous cook than most of us: in one of my favorite passages, she describes vividly how her boyfriend talked her into making sh?chá chão zh?tóuròu, a satay-sauced stir-fried pig's head with garlic scapes. "Cleaning a pig's entire face takes forever..." she begins, and we find out exactly why! (A recipe included in this chapter is for smoked pig's feet instead.)

    I am more likely to make her garlic roast chicken, cabbage with shredded pork, or Yunan rice noodles— appetizing and clearly written for a moderately experienced cook. There is another bonus with this book: Phillips is a gifted artist, who created the colorful cover and dozens of delicate line drawings throughout her story, including maps. What a story, what a splendid table!
  • Laura C. (Woodworth, LA)
    More than just a memoir
    At the Chinese Table is an amazingly detailed and enlightening romp of a memoir. Carolyn Phillips takes the reader through her first few very rocky years in Taiwan and mainland China as she struggles to decide whether her pursuit of linguistic fluency there is even worth the effort. Clearly it is (helped along by her "ever-hungry" Chinese boyfriend, now husband) and in fact she eventually becomes a world renowned expert on Chinese cuisine. Phillips' descriptions of dishes and meals are incredibly detailed and specific and she has an amazing culinary vocabulary with which to educate the reader. I found the 22 recipes, appropriately interspersed throughout the book, actually tempting to try, thanks to Phillips' suggestions of ingredient substitutions for American cooks who lack access to an authentic Chinese grocery. The Glossary and Basic Recipes section at the end is also very useful. At the Chinese Table is probably the best memoir I have ever read. Plus, this book arrived right after I had just finished reading Edward Rutherfurd's incredible 750 page China. A perfect pairing of new releases! Book clubs should enjoy reading At the Chinese Table and then sampling some of the authentic, accessible recipes. The author's own illustrations throughout the book are also quite good. All told, an excellent effort. Much more than just a memoir. I highly recommend this book.
  • Nona F. (Evanston, IL)
    A Cross Cultural Success Story
    Carolyn Phillips is a most sensuous writer whether her topic is her garden in Taiwan, food she is eating or the man she loves, so her memoir ("with recipes") is a pleasure to read. Unlike other food writers, she comes to the subject not as a professional chef, food critic or restaurateur, but first as a lover of delicious food and eventually as a scholar of regional Chinese cooking. Phillips was fortunate to find the perfect man to love, a Taiwanese scholar and gourmet whose family histories reflect the history of 20th century China. Readers will revel in the dishes that they share through the stages of their life together—and perhaps rush to the closest Asian market to replicate some of them using the 22 recipes provided. This is a cross cultural success story, a tale of food and love and language, with great appeal to a wide readership.
  • Karen R. (Columbus, OH)
    New understanding of Chinese Cuisine
    What a delightful memoir. I enjoyed reading about the author's interaction with her boyfriend's mother and father, both of whom were not thrilled the eldest son was with a foreigner. I also enjoyed the author's description of dining in Chinese restaurants. I am going to get her previous book, All Under Heaven cookbook. Traditional Chinese cooking has been too foreign for me, but after reading this memoir, I find it more approachable. Looking forward to trying some new recipes, after visiting my local Asian market.

Beyond the Book:
  Hakka Cuisine

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