Carolyn Phillips, Food Writer, Scholar, Artist

Carolyn Phillips is a food writer, scholar, and artist. She is the author of the fully illustrated All Under Heaven: Recipes from the 35 Cuisines of China (McSweeney’s + Ten Speed Press, August 2016) and The Dim Sum Field Guide: A Taxonomy of Dumplings, Buns, Meats, Sweets, and Other Specialties of the Chinese Teahouse (Ten Speed Press, August 2016). Carolyn’s art has appeared everywhere from museums and galleries, to various magazines and journals, to Nickelodeon’s Supah Ninjas series. She worked for over a decade as a professional Mandarin interpreter in the federal and California state courts, lived in Taiwan for eight years, translated countless books and articles, and married into a Chinese family more than 30 years ago.


You lived in Taiwan for eight years - what inspired this move?                  

I initially went to Taiwan to learn Chinese. Mainland China was still reeling from the last stages of the Cultural Revolution, so I opted for Taiwan, and what an amazing place that turned out to be: beautiful people, delicious food, a tropical paradise.


After two years of living in Taipei as a student, my Chinese had improved to the point where I became the main interpreter at both the National Museum of History and the National Central Library. I would translate books and letters all day and then accompany the director to Taipei’s stellar restaurants whenever he had foreign guests, which was quite often. It was the same thing at the library, so I got to eat out quite a bit. Add to that my brand new Chinese husband, quite a gourmand himself, and good food suddenly became very central to my life.


Taipei had the most amazing spectrum of regional restaurants then. To say that I was in the right time at the right place is the understatement of my life. What had happened was this: In 1949, Chiang Kai-shek lost the civil war to Mao Zedong and the communists, so Chiang decamped to China’s smallest province, the island of Taiwan. Many of these people were quite wealthy, and they had brought their favorite chefs with them, so Taiwan ended up with culinary masters from every part of China.


In the late 1970s Taiwan began producing all the hardware for those early computers, and the economy boomed. Now, when people have money, one of the first things they tend to do is reach out for the finer things in life, and with Chinese folks, that inevitably means eating really well. We already had lots of fine mom n’ pop restaurants throughout the city, but this new influx of money meant that those great chefs finally could open up the food palaces of their dreams.                                                          

What are some of the most fundamental differences between Western and Chinese culinary culture?                             

Great question. One of the biggest distinctions is that here in the West we did not have one single country enveloping all of Europe, and so we ended up with lots of smaller countries that exist to this day, like France, Germany, England, and Greece, all with their very own food cultures, ingredients, and regional cuisines. But China has been around as a country and culture for thousands of years, making it totally unique. It’s a single nation, rather than an assemblage of countries. That is one of the reasons why, when we look at China, we naturally think of the foods there as simply being “Chinese.” And in a way we’re right, because yes, they are from the country called China, but at the same time we’re wrong, because this is not a monolithic cuisine.


The thing is, China was isolated country from the rest of the world by vast oceans, endless deserts, and the highest mountains on the planet. It was cut off from the West for the most part until only around a thousand years ago, when the Silk Roads started acting as cultural highways across the vast landscapes of Central Asia.


I spent about ten years trying to figure out the food puzzle that is China’s cuisines. What I finally concluded was that the country actually has five major culinary regions, and then each of these regions encompasses a total of 35 individual cuisines. What is a culinary region? It’s an area that shares a similar climate and topography, as well as related languages, cultures, ethnicities, and ingredients. What this means in short is that the individual cuisines within that region at times end up looking like kissing cousins.


For example, the Yangtze River environs luxuriate in China’s most temperate climate, with ample rainfall, rich farmlands, vast waterways, and ancient cities, and so the foods of a great metropolis like Shanghai reflect the culinary heritages of its upriver neighbors, like Anhui, with a devotion to fermented sauces, a touch of sugar, and mellow rice wine. Fresh vegetables shine here and are supplemented with ones that have been salted or fermented to give natural flavor boosts to the local dishes. Since the foods of this region share so many common culinary traditions and ingredients, you can easily add a dish from someplace like Zhejiang to a Shanghainese dinner and expect it to effortlessly slip in with the rest of your menu.


But you will have difficulty shoehorning in foods from any of the other parts of China into that Shanghainese meal. The flavor spectrums, ingredients, and aesthetics of the other four regions are just too different. In short, I’ve found that food really is a delectable key to understanding China and its people.


Eating in China is almost always a communal affair; dishes are usually served in the center of the table, with everyone sharing. That is why most Chinese dining tables are round, and why lazy Susans are so popular in restaurants. The only time you don’t is when you are out getting a snack of noodles or something.                              


Dining therefore has some different rules, such as the requirement that you take just a little bit from the serving dishes the first time around and only get to polish off the rest once everyone else is full. The fancier the meal, of course, the more complicated the rules.                                                    

Perhaps, more importantly, chopsticks work perfectly with shared meals. Just think how difficult it would be to eat off of serving dishes if you were armed with nothing more than a knife and fork. Chopsticks, though, allow you to pick up small portions and deposit them on your own plate. They also demand that the food be reduced to smaller sizes, and they’re not going to work well on things like steak and fried chicken!


Another thing is that the Chinese have an extraordinarily ancient food culture. Few places can rival this country for the unbroken line of culinary knowledge that has passed down through the centuries. Food is taken very seriously, so seriously that the therapeutic aspects of almost every ingredient are considered. As we eat, we are filling ourselves with chemicals and nutrition, what we consume has an enormous impact on our bodies.


Food is, simply, medicine. This is especially true in the southeastern coastal region, the areas that include Southern Fujian, Northern Guangdong, and Taiwan. Traditional Chinese herbs like ginseng, red dates, and wolfberries warm the body and raise the metabolism, so people who are ill or pregnant eat these as healthful supplements. The fact that they are so delicious certainly makes the medicine go down quite easily, too.                                           


What traits do they have in common?                           

China is just like everywhere else in that food is considered an ideal reason for family and friends to get together. Parents show their love for their family by cooking favorite dishes and pampering them with special treats. Food is a delight and a reason to party. Holidays are always celebrated with food in China, as in the West, with each festival centered on specific dishes.


My guess is that the first foodies were in China. The classics are riddled with notes on how to dine well. Emperors, artists, and the literati have waxed eloquently on the subject, and even great philosophers like Confucius shared their feelings about food.                                                              

In what ways do Chinese consumers and producers generally respond to environmental factors, such as seasonality and regionality, in agricultural systems?                               

It is only recently that the Chinese have started to regain their age-old regard for the balance and wisdom of Nature.


As I will discuss in my talk at Terroir, seasonality has always played a huge part in traditional Chinese food culture. Much of this was simply due to practicality: refrigeration had not yet been invented, transportation was limited for any but the most wealthy and powerful, and you had to either grow or catch or harvest food as best you could. Sure, you could trade with people from other villages, but you generally had to deal with neighbors who more or less offered the same range of goods as yours. What that means is that in the North around Beijing, bananas were never sold, nor was fresh seafood a possibility in the Central Highlands around Sichuan Province.


Each of the five major culinary regions therefore has a set of ingredients that grows well in that particular place. Just like in the West, people in China have traditionally depended upon the foods that are grown nearby. It’s just that much fresher and better that way. Plus, if you have your own plot of land and some livestock in the back yard, you probably raised dinner yourself. Until modern technology rearranged the culinary seasons for us by allowing refrigerated, frozen, and canned ingredients to bypass the regular rhythm of Nature, the Chinese had always depended upon the best seasonal produce as their main ingredients, which were supplemented by the daily catch of seafood or freshwater fish, foraged plants, and wild game.                                                                                     

What are some of the core ingredients of traditional Chinese cuisine?                           

China is a huge place with an enormous range of climates, ethnic groups, topographies, and so forth, so each area has its own food culture and favorite ingredients. For example, the North is cold, and so wheat is the main starch, while the tropical South loves rice. Lamb and beef are beloved in the desert West, while seafood, freshwater fish, and pork are the mainstays of the temperate East.


But if you look closer, you find even more interesting factors at play. For example, you have the division between the main ethnic group – the Han Chinese – and the minorities, and that is everyone from Mongolians and Manchurians to Tibetans and the Zhuang peoples. Nine out of ten Chinese are Hans. The foods of the Han Chinese – and these are what we usually think of when we imagine “Chinese” food – have deep xianwei flavors, what we in the West now refer to by their Japanese name, umami.


Xianwei refers to the meaty, deep flavors in a dish, and in China this is usually the result of the many dried and fermented ingredients that make their way into almost everything that winds up on a table.                   


When you taste the minority foods of China, you find this characteristic more or less disappears. Just as in pretty much the rest of the world, the dishes of these peoples tend to be seasoned with salt rather than soy sauce, rice wine isn’t used, ingredients are fresh rather than dried, and you don’t see the Han Chinese infatuation with manipulating things with molds and salt and time in order to create deep, dark aromas and complex textures.


What lessons can we learn, and perhaps adopt, from the existing traditions and standards of Chinese culinary culture and cuisine?                       

Probably the most important things that we need to do as Westerners are to learn to value every part of an animal and to explore foods that are outside of our comfort zone. Americans in particular (and I say this with love) are really squeamish about things like guts, blood, faces, tendons, and skin, and so too much of the animal goes to waste or is turned into dog food. Most of the time, whenever I mention my devotion to things like beef hearts or tripe, the reaction is disgust or even disbelief. What a pity.


This waste is criminal, yes, but it also cheats us out of enjoying animals to their fullest. Take tendons, for example. We tend to think of these as inedible, but if you slowly braise them for a couple of hours, they transform into silky strands. Their innate blandness makes them ideal candidates for heavily seasoned sauces, almost like pasta. When you add them to a soup, they make the broth rich and satiny, so there is no need for a thickener. They are cheap, so anyone can buy them. And their collagen strengthens our bodies, so what’s not to love?


We should also look at foods that are not typically part of Western food cultures, like jellyfish. With the warming of our planet’s oceans, they are taking over many ecosystems. We should fight back with our chopsticks. Crunchy and lovely, they only have to be blanched, sliced, and tossed with a piquant sauce and some vegetables or chicken to turn into something extraordinary.


In what ways do you think that Chinese cuisine and culinary culture has changed most since you last lived in Taiwan?                        

The old chefs have died off and the traditional master-apprentice hierarchy has for the most part disappeared, so the ancient ways are being forgotten.                       


When I was there in the 1970s and 1980s, master chefs ran the big restaurants. Since then many of the great places have closed, as they often do when a famous chef is no longer at the helm. Too many Chinese chefs are now looking to the West for inspiration when they have this goldmine of a food culture all around them. Ingredients like fois gras, caviar, and cheese that suggest luxury and wealth are being slipped into China’s fine dining menus nowadays, but I find it silly, as China’s ancestral food is simply so much better. It’s the greatest food secret in the world, period. I’m hoping that this is just a blip in the regular evolution of a food culture and look forward to a culinary renaissance before long.


Another thing that is missing are the street hawkers. We used to have them roaming up and down the alleyways in Taipei, and these men and women were from all over China. They would sell handmade foods that reflected the cuisines of their hometowns, and it was all incredibly good. I’d wake up to their cries for steamed buns and go to sleep listening to the tamale guy announcing his wares. It was magical. But Taipei is a shiny metropolis nowadays, and most of the old hawkers seem to have disappeared.


And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the insidious inroads American fast food has made in Taiwan and China. Young people now yearn for commercialized pizza, fried chicken, and hamburgers instead of the great street foods of China. I don’t understand the appeal. It’s like choosing a moped over a Ferrari.


In addition to your work as a food writer, you're also a professional artist. In what ways have you been able to combine your passions for food, writing, and art?


These two loves did not begin to dovetail until McSweeney’s accepted my proposal for All Under Heaven: Recipes From The 35 Cuisines of China. This was a dream come true. McSweeney’s is a fiercely independent and creative publishing house that treats its writers and artists with unparalleled respect. To even be considered by them is an honor, so I still can’t believe they said yes.


Also, right at the start, Lucky Peach asked me to create an illustrated guide to Cantonese teahouse treats that later morphed into a book – The Dim Sum Field Guide, which will be published by Ten Speed Press in late August – so I’ve been on cloud nine ever since.                                               

I feel extraordinarily lucky to be doing what I love for a living. Not too many people can say that their dreams have come true.