The BookBrowse Review

Published June 9, 2021

ISSN: 1930-0018

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Book Jacket

At the Chinese Table
A Memoir with Recipes
by Carolyn Phillips
15 Jun 2021
304 pages
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company
Genre: Biography/Memoir
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Part memoir of life in Taiwan, part love story―a beautifully told account of China's brilliant cuisines…with recipes.

At the Chinese Table describes in vivid detail how, during the 1970s and '80s, celebrated cookbook writer and illustrator Carolyn Phillips crosses China's endless cultural and linguistic chasms and falls in love. During her second year in Taipei, she meets scholar and epicurean J. H. Huang, who nourishes her intellectually over luscious meals from every part of China. And then, before she knows it, Carolyn finds herself the unwelcome candidate for eldest daughter-in-law in a traditional Chinese family.

This warm, refreshingly candid memoir is a coming-of-age story set against a background of the Chinese diaspora and a family whose ancestry is intricately intertwined with that of their native land. Carolyn's reticent father-in-law―a World War II fighter pilot and hero―eventually embraces her presence by showing her how to re-create centuries-old Hakka dishes from family recipes. In the meantime, she brushes up on the classic cuisines of the North in an attempt to win over J. H.'s imperious mother, whose father had been a warlord's lieutenant. Fortunately for J. H. and Carolyn, the tense early days of their relationship blossom into another kind of cultural and historical education as Carolyn masters both the language and many of China's extraordinary cuisines.

With illustrations and twenty-two recipes, At the Chinese Table is a culinary adventure like no other that captures the diversity of China's cuisines, from the pen of a world-class scholar and gourmet.

Line drawings throughout.

"I can count on one hand the number of people I trust about Chinese gastronomy. Carolyn Phillips is one of them. The richness and scholarship she has brought to my people's food culture is evident in every illuminating page of At the Chinese Table. I don't have enough hands to count how often I'll return to this book." - Kevin Pang, America's Test Kitchen

"At the Chinese Table is a cookbook, a memoir, an exquisitely rendered history lesson, and a love story, written with enchanting warmth, intelligence, humor, and respect." - Laurie Woolever, coauthor, with Anthony Bourdain, of World Travel: An Irreverent Guide

"What a seductive read!…Caroline Phillips takes us into another world, with lively details, humorous self-deprecation, and enticing line drawings. It's a world of family stories, cultural traditions, and delicious food of great depth and variety. Her curiosity and appetite for understanding and her engaging storytelling transported me effortlessly." - Naomi Duguid, author of Taste of Persia and Burma: Rivers of Flavor

Write your own review

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Andrea B. (Clinton, WA)
Chinese Food and Culture
This book is an unusual combination of memoir and ethnic cuisine discussion. I enjoyed both parts of this book as I love Chinese food and am interested in Chinese culture. Although I have not attempted to cook much Chinese food, I found it interesting to read about both the ingredients and the techniques. I have not tried any of the recipes in this book yet, but I plan to try a couple of the simpler ones with easy to obtain ingredients. Many of the recipes were labor intensive with a variety of ingredients, typical of Chinese food. I now realize that the complicated techniques and many ingredients in a dish were a way to stretch the small amount of meat available to feed an entire family. The author's description of the tastes I found interesting but, of course, I wish I could have tasted the foods that she was describing. I fantasized about a tour of Taiwan with lectures and tastings every day. The addition of cooking classes would be fun for true aficionados of Chinese food, but I fear the complexity of the food preparation might be more time consuming than most would want.

I found the memoir part of the book engaging and an interesting glimpse into Chinese culture. All cultures seem to have mothers who would like to carefully vet their son's and daughter's choice of spouse. Carolyn's understanding and respect for Chinese food and culture gave her the motivation necessary for her success both as a cook and as a daughter-in-law. Of course, the husband's devotion to Carolyn gave her the support that aided her success in fulfilling these roles.

This is a book that will appeal to those who like Chinese food and Chinese culture.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Ariel F. (Madison, WI)
Outstanding memoir/recipe book
I found this a fascinating read. I was especially impressed that a white woman, who was a minority in that country, learned the language and then married a native. Learning the language, in itself was an accomplishment.Her writing,illustrations, and recipes made it very interesting. The ability to provide details about her life, both the good and bad in Taiwan and mainland China was were fascinating. I appreciated the fact that she included both sides and did not sugarcoat things.
Definitely worth reading.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Jo K. (Saratoga, CA)
A joy to read
Carolyn Phillip's memoir with recipes is fascinating and wonderful to read. Her passion and love for the Chinese cultures, cuisines and people is palpable on every page. Her stories are all very interesting and so well written and the illustrations are delightful but I have to say, my favorite parts of the book were the recipes at the end of each chapter. Each was described with such enthusiasm (and advice!) which made them a joy to read and really added to her whole memoir.

An truly excellent book...I learned so much and I recommend it highly!

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Vicki -
Memoir in Food
If you enjoy memoirs and love food, this is the book for you. Carolyn Phillips, author of the cookbook All Under Heaven, has given us another wonderful book, this one about her time, travel, love and life in Taiwan. Phillips, a white American, initially went to Taiwan as a student on a one year Chinese language immersion program in the late 1970's. One year became many more and soon she was truly immersed in family, food, and friends.

Each chapter depicts her lessons learned and wisdom gained from the experience described. In addition each chapter ends with recipes related to the food mentioned. From geography to family dynamics Carolyn Phillips covers these topics as if she is a friend telling the reader about her many adventures. She peels away the layers of her culinary memories of her 8 years in Taiwan as if she were stripping an onion or sloughing the skin of a garlic clove. Phillips' words are as tantalizing as her recipes.

Measurements in the recipes are in both metric and American standard. A glossary in the back clarifies some of the ingredients, making the recipes very approachable. Carolyn Phillips also identifies substitutions for Chinese ingredients if required.

With illustrations by the author, this is definitely a memoir to be kept in the kitchen and used often as well as one to be read aloud with your favorite culinary friend.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Gloria K. (Madison, WI)
"Close Your Eyes and Taste This"
To close your eyes and taste something can be a leap of faith! Carolyn Phillips, author of At the Chinese Table proved her ability to take a leap of faith in both her career and personal life. She left the USA and moved to Taiwan as a graduate student, met her future husband and married into a Chinese family. If you read other reviews you are already familiar with this story of love, memoirs and recipes. I would like to share why this book holds great appeal for me. The book is divided into 11 Chapters of story followed by recipes and tips on cooking as well as procuring the ingredients needed to prepare the dishes. The book is peppered with the author's hand drawn illustrations, maps and indices, plus a glossary to guide the reader through a list of Chinese foods and ingredients which may be unfamiliar.

At The Chinese Table is a book I predict will be treasured and reread by cooks, artists and a variety of assorted readers .After you have read the book I think you will understand why I selected the review title of "Close Your Eyes and Taste."

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Lucy S. (ANN ARBOR, MI)
Engaging and mouth-watering!
At The Chinese Table by Carolyn Phillips was an unexpected delight! This book is called a "memoir with recipes," but it is so much more. Phillips provides history, geography, and a deep cultural study of all the parts of China and Taiwan that she encountered. I enjoy the personal anecdotes as she got to know and become accepted by her in-laws, and her boyfriend/husband introduced her to regional food in a way that made her, and her readers, appreciate the importance of taste, mouthfeel, temperature, appearance, and the way food can create an ambience of its own.

Phiilips says, "all of these appetizers have been created as silent requests for our undivided attention. They set the mood for leisurely meals that at first glance tease the senses and then very gradually sate our appetites. No instant gratification is ever offered. Instead, we must settle back and acquiesce, leaving the world behind."

And that is what this book offers as well.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Mary C. (Plano, TX)
Taipei Adventures
After having lived in Indonesia during the time that Carolyn Phillips first traveled to Taipei, I was eagerly anticipating reading this book. It does not take a trip to Asia to fall under the spell of this charming, yet realistic, memoir which includes skillful drawings and insightful recipes. Best of all, this book is from an American's point of view so I could totally relate to Ms. Phillips' foray into a world so different from her own. The unfamiliarity of China all brings the reader to a larger understanding of a world not yet visited. This book will resonate with people of all ethnicities and ages. As Ms. Phillips expresses unease with how little she understands her new surroundings, she grows in an appreciation, and the reader grows with her. Her histories of the relationships between mother/daughter, wife/husband, daughter-in-law/in-laws are relatable in any country.
Then there is the magic of looking at cooking and eating in a whole new way. Gastronomic theory might sound dry, but Ms. Phillips makes it intriguing. I might never cook pig's head or feet, but the author makes the journey amusing. New ideas of Chinese cooking are eye openers, showing how the cuisine of each section of the country changes as do the recipes- - -some you would probably never try and others that will become family treasures.

After reading this book, China will continue to mystify the reader with its unique food and culture, but the reader will not ever feel the same way about China again. Who knows what further explorations will appeal to me. I will definitely try some of the recipes and explore further adventures into Chinese cuisine.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by 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.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by 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

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by 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!

more reviews...

Carolyn Phillips is a food writer, scholar, artist, fluent Mandarin speaker, and author of the James Beard–nominated All Under Heaven, the first English-language cookbook to examine all thirty-five cuisines of China. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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