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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Strange and misleading interpretations like these will compound themselves over the ensuing decades into misdirections and obfuscations that I will have to tear down before I can blindly feel my way through this colossal cultural maze. The absolute disconnect between Chinese and English will, those first few years, be my sworn enemy. In fact, I am already floundering to a stunning degree. All the classes I took in Honolulu have certainly allowed me to read better than any Chinese four-​year-​old, but the local preschoolers easily wipe the floor with me when it comes to saying something intelligible.

Luckily for me, I am able to say one thing right off the bat very well: zhá páigŭ, or fried pork chops. To my mind, this term is one of the most practical things anyone should ever know when living among the pork-​loving Chinese, for it ensures, if nothing else, the possibility of a very good meal.

Few places in the world can hold a candle to the way Taiwanese chop stalls make them: Excellent-​quality pork is pounded out until it is the size of a large man's hand and as thin as a china plate. This extra bit of effort by the cook at the prep end serves to break down the fibers, making the meat as silky and absorbent as a hankie. That whisper of a chop is then swished around in a thick marinade of soy sauce, garlic, and five-​spice before being dredged in sweet-​potato starch and deep-​fried to a brittle crunch.

I sometimes wonder how much of China's gastronomic magic would have been lost if the humble pig hadn't long ago been enshrined as one of the truly lasting Han Chinese ingredients. For all we know, a curious hominid living on the banks of North China's massive Yellow River might have been the one who discovered porky nirvana. But no matter where it all started, the first bona fide ancestors of both humans and pigs appeared during the early Pleistocene, more than two million years ago. By the Neolithic Age, which lasted from about 8000 BCE until the birth of the Bronze Age around six thousand years later, pigs were already so beloved in China that they came to decorate household items, such as the one here that shuffles its way along a bowl's surface. Somewhere around that time, the local humans came up with a written name for this delicious creature, as can be seen in the earliest Chinese character for pig, or zhū, which appears as a rather cute little animal balanced upright on its tail end, its head in the air and its little legs waving to the left.

Pork is still the signature ingredient in every Han Chinese cuisine—​to such an extent that most mentions of meat really mean pork. Even today, dishes that the Chinese call braised meat (shāoròu) and shredded meat (ròusī) and white—​or boiled—​meat (báiròu, see page 258) invariably refer to pork, for this has always been the meat of China. But then again, a feast menu in The Zhou Book of Rites lists "eight exquisite" courses for an emperor of long ago. Starting out on a high note with roast suckling pig, it then quickly devolves into dried meat and roasted dog liver. Maybe his party tasted better than it sounds. One hopes so.

A big map of China dominates one of our classrooms and shows the borders circa 1949, back when all of Chiang's dreams went south. I have never paid it much mind, though, despite the fact that I am ostensibly here to learn Chinese and study Chinese culture, simply because Taiwan is my immediate reality, while China has faded into an abstraction. This even extends to the food, for the mother in my host family, Auntie Lee, is an extraordinary Taiwanese home cook, and every night she feeds her specialties to her family and me—​like golden cabbage fritters, simple fried fish, and impossibly tender cuttlefish stir-​fries.

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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