Excerpt from At the Chinese Table by Carolyn Phillips, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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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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Chapter 1
Unfamiliarity
Taipei—​1976 to 1978


The city that sparkles below me, the one stirring itself awake window by window, hints that it is much more foreign and definitely much more exciting than I had been led to believe. In a few years, I will come to love this place more than I had ever thought possible. But right now, on this first morning in my host family's home, I content myself with simply inhaling the sultry scents that envelop the mysterious Asian capital sprawling below me, its edges fading into the night fog and darkness.

Outside my compact little bath, the subtropical air whirls with Taipei's indefinable aroma: a heady mixture of diesel fumes, last night's rain, something or other frying, sandalwood incense, sesame oil, and the occasional gasp of cigarette smoke. Before this trip, the only foreign country I had ever managed to visit was Canada, but here I am, committed to a year on the other side of the world with only four semesters of college Chinese under my belt. As I stare out the window, I wonder whether I am being incredibly brave or abysmally foolish.

The day is September 3, 1976. I am twenty-​one. Everyone I know within a three-​thousand-​mile radius is an acquaintance of only a few days, like me yet one more young American hoping against hope to learn Chinese. My stomach has been grumbling insistently ever since I woke up, so as soon as the sun begins to peek over the horizon, I throw on some jeans and a T-​shirt, scrawl a note in Chinese that tries to suggest something on the order of "I'll be back in a couple hours," grab my house keys and a small wad of the local currency, and cram a dictionary into my back pocket. I arrange my house slippers next to the front door, put on a pair of old tennis shoes, and scurry down the apartment stairwell at high speed. I turn left as I reach the alleyway and head for the noisy thoroughfare I saw through the window, anxious to get my new life off to a tasty start.

Crossing the intersection of Songjiang and Xinyi Roads, I follow clusters of housewives and old folks slipping into tiny dark warrens between plain concrete apartment buildings, the empty shopping bags in their hands telling me everything I need to know. By the time I catch up with them, we have turned the final corner onto a wide lane, where the sounds and smells and crazy beauty of a bustling open market explode onto my senses with an almost viral intensity.

Throngs hunting down the day's supplies jostle me as I try to wriggle my way up the lane. Pyramids of brilliantly colored fruits adorn the fronts of some shops, while others are dedicated to fresh produce I don't recognize and dried ingredients I can't identify and still-​flapping fish I've never before laid eyes on. Bamboo cages filled with live ducks and chickens cluster around a bench containing a chopping block and a scale, and set to the side are baskets of eggs spackled with muck and feathers. A butcher offers every part of the pig he killed during the night: precise squares of its coagulated mahogany blood submerged in clear water, and all of the animal's organs cleaned and arranged in small plastic tubs under the rows of hooks holding fresh shoulders, hams, ribs, feet, and a hairless face, as if to settle any unanswered questions as to what this animal once was.

The market smells of life and it smells of death. This is freshness on a scale I have never before encountered. I dodge the puddles from last night's squall and feel the swish of children and dogs as they careen past me through the crowds. Sometimes a person will stop, abruptly aware that I look different, and give me a stare that dissolves into a big grin. Vendors call out their wares in Taiwanese or Mandarin. Combined with the voluble discussions going on around me and the squawking of poultry, it all sounds strangely symphonic. The shoppers are bargaining for absolutely everything here, resolutely holding out for cheaper prices until money and goods change hands, and then both sides break into smiles as they wish each other a nice day. Many of these customers snatch a bunch of green onions or a handful of fresh chiles as they leave, like a lagniappe or a fragrant freebie. The vendors seem to expect this, for they have arranged these parting favors in snaggable bunches at the edges of their stalls. It's all part of a game I don't quite understand but am eager to learn.

Excerpted from At the Chinese Table: A Memoir With Recipes. Copyright (c) 2021 by Carolyn Phillips. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

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