Summary and book reviews of At the Chinese Table by Carolyn Phillips

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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Book Summary

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.

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 ...

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Reviews

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She peels away the layers of the culinary memories of her eight years in Taiwan as if she were stripping an onion or sloughing the skin off a garlic clove. Phillips' words are as tantalizing as her recipes (Victoria B). Traditional Chinese cooking has been too foreign for me, but after reading this memoir, I find it more approachable. Looking forward to trying some new recipes, after visiting my local Asian market (Karen R). At the Chinese Table is probably the best memoir I have ever read. Book clubs should enjoy reading it and then sampling some of the authentic, accessible recipes (Laura C)...continued

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Media Reviews

Asian Review of Books
For most, food nourishes the present as well as representing home and better times. Phillips's relentless curiosity and evocative style make this memoir mouthwatering and heart wrenching by turns.

Publishers Weekly
In this multifaceted memoir, food writer Phillips vividly recounts her love affair with Chinese cuisine...Phillips pairs every chapter with a few recipes­—among them black sesame candy wafers (her father-in-law's favorite), garlic chile sauce, and Yunnan cold rice noodles—that ambitious home chefs will want to try. The blend of cooking, culture, and romance make this an irresistible treat for food lovers and travelers.

Kirkus Reviews
In a smooth mixture of memoir, family biography, cookbook, travelogue, and travel writing, Phillips ably conveys her knowledge of Chinese cuisine...It may take an extra trip to the store, but the recipes are worth the effort...A uniquely presented story of love and food that reaches across genres and generations.

Library Journal
The writing is geared toward a Western audience that has little exposure to the cultures of Taiwan and China; some of the descriptive language has undertones of fetishism that may not land well with readers. Overall, an engaging work for those interested in memoir, food writing, or Chinese and Taiwanese recipes that will be new to some cooks' repertoires.

Author Blurb Kevin Pang, America's Test Kitchen
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.

Author Blurb Laurie Woolever, coauthor, with Anthony Bourdain, of World Travel: An Irreverent Guide
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.

Author Blurb Naomi Duguid, author of Taste of Persia and Burma: Rivers of Flavor
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.

Reader Reviews

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 ...   Read More
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 ...   Read More
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 ...   Read More
Vicki - www.beachwalkbooktalks.com

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, ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

Hakka Cuisine

Poon choy, featuring prawns, broccoli, oysters, fried dumplingsThe Hakka are an ethnic minority of Han Chinese people who migrated out of the northern regions of China in waves taking place in the fourth and ninth centuries. Today, the largest populations of Hakka live in China's Guangdong Province (located in the southeast of China, near Hong Kong), and they have their own distinct language and culture. The name "Hakka" means "guest people" in Mandarin, presumed to be a reference to this group's nomadic history. Much of Carolyn Phillips' memoir At the Chinese Table takes place in Taiwan, and the family of the man she marries is Hakka. She learns to cook traditional Hakka cuisine in part to gain the approval of her in-laws.

Since the Hakka have a history of migration through mountainous areas and ...

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