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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Hawkers and tiny restaurants claim small pieces of real estate in the market, too. My mouth salivates as I inhale the scents of their savory rice noodles and some sort of chowder, and I hesitate at one particularly aromatic stand before heading on. I need something else—​I don't know what, but it will have to be really hot and really comforting. I feel logy and hung over because my body still hasn't recovered from the exhausting flight that took me from San Jose to Los Angeles through Honolulu, and then all the way to a superlong layover in Tokyo before I was finally released into the wilds of downtown Taipei.

My nose perks up as I turn right into a small alley. Large chunks of meat simmer in a vat of aromatic stock by the door of a family-​run stall, and clusters of diners contentedly slurping breakfast around the rickety tables confirm that I have come to the right place. I order a bowl of Taiwan's famous beef noodle soup, sit down, fish a pair of plastic chopsticks out of the rough-​glazed pottery container to my right, and lean my back against the wall. I look out over the bustling marketplace and marvel that I have actually made it all the way to Taiwan, that I am going to have my first true Chinese meal, and that it is going to be fantastic.

The truth of the matter is that I'm in Taipei by happenstance more than anything else. Only a few months earlier, I had come across an announcement for study abroad on a college bulletin board, had applied to both Taipei and Tokyo without giving it much thought, got accepted into the Mandarin program, and in short order found myself on my way to Taiwan. And now, with a bit of luck, maybe during my time here I'll manage to figure out what I am going to do with the rest of my life.

These initial weeks in Taiwan do turn out to be strangely wonderful because I look at my surroundings with the eyes of a child and revel in the absolute novelty of the world swirling around me. I see blurs instead of words and hear babble instead of thoughts. I hope against hope that this is temporary, for I'm starting school in less than a week. However, fast-​forward a month later, and things have not improved much. Mandarin is taught using textbooks that have nothing to do with the extraordinary world outside my door, and most of my language teachers are so didactic that I feel they are almost daring me to remain mute. Even worse are my dry-​as-​dust classes about history, literature, and art that are taught in English by people who must have taken some sort of blood oath to keep Chinese culture firmly at an impalpable distance. After about two months of trying, I finally realize that a simple bowl of noodles is usually able to open up a little window of comprehension that makes life here less, well, inscrutable. And that is as good an excuse as any to eat out whenever and wherever I can.

My greatest culinary discovery that first year—​and an experience that led to a better understanding of modern China than any of those textbooks ever did—​is a little Taipei hole-​in-​the-​wall called Old Zhang's Dandan Noodles. This place serves little else but the classic street foods of Sichuan's capital, Chengdu. At first glance, it doesn't look like much, but a cloud of unfamiliar yet tantalizing scents puffs out the door and lures me in, so I slide warily into a seat. Because the menu proves unintelligible, I ask to be served the same thing as the guy at the next table. With rheumy growls, the waiter shouts my order out to the kitchen. Requests are met with snarls and eye contact is discouraged, giving this place all the charm and welcome of your average biker bar. But when I at last dig in, I immediately decide to dine here as often as possible. Hoping to keep this my very own secret clubhouse, I introduce it to only a tiny handful of good American friends like Leann, who will understand, who will fall in love, and who will definitely keep their mouths shut.

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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