You’ll be delighted by All Under Heaven, Carolyn Phillip’s new cookbok about the 35 cuisines of China. I’m giving away a copy. Leave a comment below and tell me your favorite Chinese food. Sorry, the giveaway is for US winners only, says the publisher.
UPDATE: The winner is Annie Fenn of the Jackson Hole Foodie blog.
Now, on with the story…
If you look up “overachiever” in the dictionary, you’ll find this photo of Carolyn Phillips. A woman of voracious intellect, determination and cheeky humor, she did a deep dive into Chinese culture early in adult life. Carolyn has mastered Mandarin fluently. She can read and write it. Further, she lived in Taipei, married a fellow intellectual from Beijing, and cooked her way through 35 regional cuisines, researching them in Chinese. If this work ethic is not enough to impress you, she is also a beautiful illustrator.
When you get to her admonition (below) to “write like your life depended on it,” you will marvel at her fierceness and possibly hang your head in shame. But don’t compare. Instead, prefer to be amazed by what Carolyn has accomplished, including launching her blog, Madame Huang’s Kitchen, in 2010. Not only does she write like her life depends on it, but she also researches, cooks and illustrates in the same manner. And clearly, she’s having the time of her life.
Her two books debuted on August 30, 2016. All Under Heaven: Recipes from the 35 Cuisines of China took her 10 years to research, write, and illustrate. It’s magnificent, a reference on the eight traditional Chinese cuisines, with 300 recipes. But at the same time you’ll enjoy her clever subtitles, side references to James Bond, and friendly tips on how to cook, including how to stand while chopping. (For more, read this Epicurious review.) The Dim Sum Field Guide is a smaller book, a fun, beautiful guide to the alluring variety of dim sum dishes.
Here’s more about Carolyn’s work ethic as a food writer and illustrator:
Q. First of all, how did you write two food books that came out on the same day?
A. This was definitely not planned. In. The. Least.
A decade ago, I quit my job as a professional Mandarin court interpreter to research and write about the foods of China. I started out by posting recipes and stories on my blog, Madame Huang’s Kitchen. Over time people wrote to me, telling me that these were the recipes they had been looking for; the foods that reminded them of the things their Chinese grandmothers, aunties, and mothers used to make.
That really inspired me, and the idea of writing a comprehensive Chinese cookbook took form. I read and re-read your book, Dianne, on how to write a good proposal, thank you! Some successful food writer friends critiqued my 50th draft. Then I sent it all over the place before McSweeney’s finally came to the rescue.
All Under Heaven was supposed to be published a couple of years ago, but delays kept happening. So I gave up fretting and started to write and illustrate The Dim Sum Field Guide. It was based on a feature I had created a few years earlier for Lucky Peach, which then turned it into a handout for the 2013 MAD Symposium in Copenhagen, in addition to publishing it online.
The response was incredible. I started thinking about turning this, too, into a book. Ten Speed Press accepted the proposal, and about a month later, Ten Speed and McSweeney’s said they were going to jointly publish All Under Heaven. I know. This is really weird timing, but you just can’t make this sort of thing up.
Some brilliant minds decided that since nobody had ever published two titles on the same day – except for Prince, who released two albums on the same day in 2014 – this would be novel and fun and give us more of an exciting entrance. I am in good company with the Purple One. Ta-da.
Q. How did you divide up the work of researching, writing, recipe testing and illustrating?
A. It was exactly in the order you just listed. Except that after writing comes the part about creating the recipes for an American kitchen. For me, though, that first step of studying always took the most time.
This may have something to do with my love for diving down any rabbit holes and then following them as far as they can go – like, why do I see Muslim influences over so much of China’s west? Where did these people come from? Where did they move to in China and why? What sort of foods did they bring with them? How did these dishes change when they hit new areas? They lead me on what always seems to be wild goose chases. But I often ended up satisfying my endless questions in new and strange ways.
Another reason it takes so long is that I do much of my research in Chinese. It means hunting around for resources in unexpected places. My husband is also a writer, and so we have a huge library at our home.
Even so, compared to Western food traditions, relatively little has been written about China’s cuisines, other than the usual suspects like Sichuanese and Cantonese. I’ve sometimes relied on weird resources like ancient literary sketchbooks whose author saw things in a particular place in a particular time, or history books, or the classics. China also has cookbooks written centuries ago, and they offer wonderful clues as to how people ate a long time ago.
I had to figure out the general culinary regions of China. No one has really done that before, since the eight great cuisines cover only a handful of Han Chinese food traditions while ignoring the vast majority of the country. Then I had to puzzle out how all of China’s provinces and major cities and so on fit together in a logical manner. Sometimes there were problems with places like Guangxi or Fujian, because their northern and southern cuisines are completely independent. Other areas like Hainan looked like they would be so easy. I thought a tropical island off the coast of Vietnam would have Southeast Asian crossed with Polynesian foods, right? But in fact it was a total surprise.
Once I had the basic sketch of each area figured out, I’d then try to color in those outlines with their preferences for certain cooking methods, seasonings, proteins, and starches. Following the trail of little things such as a love for pounded sticky rice (which is where Japanese mochi comes from) led to clues as to what sort of people had moved into that area, bringing their traditional foods with them, and whether they ever assimilated into the local societies.
For example, I’d look into the languages each place spoke, what religions they practiced, whether they used soy sauce or salt, white liquor or rice wine, rice or wheat, or pork or beef. I’d check out the geography, the climate, the local vegetables, and their reliance on dried foods or fresh. All of these factors gave me important clues as to the history and culture behind these food cultures.
It was fascinating. I was blown away by how incredibly complex China’s cuisines are, which makes perfect sense, since China and Europe are about the same size, geographically speaking.
Q. Was there a best part of writing two cookbooks at once?
A. It’s kind of a never-a-dull-moment sort of thrill, I suppose. Actually, the adrenaline is more than a bit addictive. I’d finish one deadline and then have three more screaming for my immediate attention. I fully illustrated both books, and that, of course, doubled my workload and deadlines.
This rush is wonderful for losing weight, though. And if you cook and eat as much as I do, any little assistance is gratefully accepted. And happily rationalized.
Q. What was the most challenging part?
A. Finding a publisher! I am proud to say that I was rejected by every single publisher in the USA before McSweeney’s took up the challenge and handed me this career. Before that, a number of agents had done their level best to help, but in the end they all threw up their hands. Absolutely nobody wanted to publish a Chinese cookbook. They said it wouldn’t sell. One agent even suggested that I forget China’s cuisines and learn to cook and speak Italian. I still think that’s pretty funny.
The lesson to be memorized by any cookbook writers out there: Never give up. It doesn’t matter how many people say no. You just need one editor to say yes.
Q. At first you were a Chinese speaker and eater, when you lived in Taipei. How did you become such an ambitious cook?
A. My work as an interpreter at a number of Taiwan’s cultural institutions allowed me to eat at the best food palaces in Taipei. The best chefs in China had left the Mainland for Taiwan in 1949 and were just hitting their stride when I arrived in 1976. Taiwan was prospering, thanks to the tech revolution, and so money poured in for the creation of great food for the newly wealthy.
On weekends, I’d try to re-create some of whatever favorite dishes I’d eaten. I started buying lots of Chinese-language cookbooks. My husband is an excellent cook, and his taste memory is unparalleled (don’t tell him I told you that), so he is always telling me if a certain dish needed more this or that. He’s actually quite cranky and critical, but that just brings out the Irish in me, and so even now I growl and keep cooking things until they pass the Huang Taste Test.
Then, when we moved back to the U.S., we no longer could eat at our favorite restaurants or buy beloved ingredients. That meant that I had to work out how to make fermented rice, smoked chicken and stuffed bean curd. Then I graduated to the difficult things that needed deciphering, like puff pastry, Chinese candies, aged rice wine, charcuterie, and fermented sauces. My husband says that my work areas look more like a mad scientist’s lair than a home cook’s. But I’m having fun.
Q. When you’re cooking for you and your husband, J. H. Huang, what are you most likely to make?
A. It often has to do with whatever it is I’m writing about. I get obsessive and will keep returning to a certain recipe until I’ve wrestled it to the ground. Some recipes, of course, come together easily. Whenever he happens to really like one, my husband complains that he never sees it again because I’m then on to the next project. Oh, he exaggerates. A bit.
But he does get fed his favorites. He loves red-cooked chicken with potatoes, big northern stews like his mom used to make, and the Hakka dishes that remind him of his dad. We also eat salads in the summer, soups in the winter, and sandwiches so that we don’t get stuck in a rut. But it’s mostly Chinese food in some iteration or another.
Q. Why is your blog name Madame Huang?
A. At first I was just being cheeky. I’m this white woman, a blonde, and I’ve always kept my own name, and yet my husband’s last name is Huang. I thought it would amusing to anoint myself with this grand title, like so many famous Chinese ladies used to do. Then I grew into it. My mother-in-law used to be Madame Huang, and now here I am, cramming my toes into her tiny little shoes. I’m sure she’s spinning in her grave.
Q. In an interview you suggested that people who want to write about food should “write like your life depended on it.” What do you mean by it?
A. You have to take yourself and your work seriously. You should wake up raring to go to work and be delighted to keep going until it is time for bed. Keep your rear attached to your chair even if part of you would rather go out and play.
This should be an infatuation for you, nothing less. If it’s a slog, then you have the wrong job, because writing is very lonely and extremely frustrating for the longest of times. There’s a good chance people will hassle you at the worst moments, wondering aloud why you don’t get a “real” job and make actual money and stop living like a grad student. They’ll helpfully comment on the fact your wardrobe consists of little more than ratty sweats.
Remember, though, that those sorts of people probably never wrote much more than an email and haven’t a clue as to what’s involved or what sort of sacrifices you have to make. Grow a thick skin and ignore them, and even try to forgive them while you sit happily at your desk, typing away, doing that thing that you love.
This career should be first and foremost in your life. Your passion will show though in your work, and it’s the source of whatever it takes to keep on going until your book is completed and you’re on your way to getting it published. And then, if you’re lucky, you’ll start writing another one. And then another one.
I write and draw and cook and obsess over China’s foods because that is what I truly want to do with my time. I’d rather be churning out another book than be at a party or a movie or just about anyplace else. It honestly gives me that much pleasure. I mean, how great is it to be able to think about food, talk about food, eat about food, and write about food for a living?
* * *
If you’d like to win a copy of All Under Heaven, leave a comment below about your favorite Chinese food. I’ll pick a winner through random.org by September 13, 2016. Sorry, the publisher will mail only to US residents.
(Disclosure: Ten Speed Press sent me both copies of Carolyn’s books, and is supplying the book for the giveaway.)