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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One day I ask a teacher why these waiters are so terrifyingly sullen, and I am told that, like most of the retired conscripts who live on the island, Old Zhang's Sichuanese waiters were once foot soldiers in Chiang Kai-​shek's Nationalist Army. They had fought against either their Communist adversaries in the country's civil war or the Japanese invaders, or sometimes both. And although World War II eventually came to an end, China's civil war never really did, because instead of surrendering to Mao Zedong, Chiang and his troops decamped in 1949 to Taiwan, where they founded a separate government shored up with military backing from the United States. America's virulently anticommunist stance at the time encouraged Chiang to think that he could one day retake the Mainland, so this standoff has continued to simmer away on the back burner ever since.

But the human cost has been enormous, for family members and friends are completely cut off from one another by these implacable enemies on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. Even letters between parents and children or husbands and wives are forbidden. The hardest hit by this seem to be low-​ranking military retirees, since they arrived in Taiwan alone along with their fellow conscripts and now often have to settle for jobs that barely allow them to eke by, that ensure they will never be able to support new households of their own. Thus, many of them are angrily resigned to working the rest of their solitary lives in shops where the food is familiar and the people sound like home, at places like Old Zhang's.

Typhoons scourge the island as fall takes over the calendar, as good an excuse as any to squirrel myself away in this little restaurant. At times like these, the rain pounds on the fiberglass awnings so loudly that conversation is impossible. But even if a stranger happens to sit at my table, we diligently ignore each other in order to enjoy our exquisitely spicy meals in perfect solitude. We don't even share a teapot or a word of greeting—​we understand that as long as we seek refuge in this dry fortress, the other person sitting a foot away does not really exist.

As soon as my bowl is slammed on the table, I pull it forward and admire the perfectly white strands of fresh hot noodles covering the sauce so completely that this little basin gives the impression of being unadorned and innocent. And yet it is anything but. I gently toss the noodles with the hidden sauce until they are coated in a rusty glaze of ground peanuts, sesame paste, minced pork, chopped green onions and garlic, finely diced pickles, fiery chile oil, a dusting of ground toasted Sichuan peppercorns, and sweetened soy sauce. The first bite slithers across my tongue and makes me sigh, whetting my appetite for more. Soon my hunger has dulled enough for me to direct my attention to a tiny steamer basket of pork ribs skating up near my elbow. Creamier pork ribs have never existed in the annals of history: Soaked in a spicy marinade and then coated with tiny globules of steamed rice, they float over equally buttery chunks of sweet potato that have sucked up their juices and seasonings and fat. I quickly learn to squish the pork and tawny potatoes against the roof of my mouth in order to make the flavors mingle and the aromatics shoot up the back of my nose and into my sinuses. I admit, it's not an especially pretty sight, which is one more reason for me to always dine alone here.

Part of the appeal of this food definitely lies in the chiles, but they are also backed up with even more flavorings clamoring for attention: the usual aromatic trio of fresh ginger and green onions and garlic interwoven with black cardamom, salty black beans, fermented fava beans in chile paste, and the Good & Plenty reverberations of star anise, fennel, and dried licorice root. The fire of the chiles is almost always offset by what I've come to think of as the ice of Sichuan peppercorns. These tiny, pink, leathery husks numb my lips and tongue. They're more about sensory reactions than flavors, more electric than spicy, more aromatic than tasty. But, as almost always happens in the flow between Chinese and English, lingual hiccups ruin any possibility for a smooth transition. Even something as simple as these two English words—​Sichuan and peppercorns—​gets both salient points wrong, because what we are talking about here isn't really a variety of pepper, but rather a relative of the prickly ash. Plus, according to the most ancient of China's materia medica, these plants originated somewhere farther north, around Shaanxi Province, not Sichuan. Such are the sins of inept translators.

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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