Chinese food scares the hell out of me.
I'm not talking about the sugar-shellacked American classics like General Tso's, and I'm not talking about dim sum. I know har gow, mantou, congee. I know xiao long bao and I spell mapo doufu with a "d." I know the meaning of ma la and I can tell the difference between gai lan and yu choy.
And yet I still have a quiet panic attack every time I enter a Chinese grocery store (which is far too often if you ask my fiancé, whose depth of food knowledge doesn't extend far beyond the realm of hamburgers). I stare up and down the aisles of sauces and dried fish and jujubes, feigning confidence as I pretend to read the logograms and know what to do with jars of fermented bean curd.
The problem is that I am a marshmallow-white American who has never set foot in China, and comprehending dozens of distinct cuisines from a nation of nearly 1.4 billion people is a daunting prospect.
It's one of the reasons why I was incredibly excited to meet Carolyn Phillips, a Chinese food expert who blogs under the moniker Madame Huang and is the author of a stunning and massive new cookbook, All Under Heaven: Recipes from the 35 Cuisines of China. Yes, all 35 of them.
You might deduce from her name that Phillips is not Chinese herself. She moved to Taiwan as a college student, ostensibly to immerse herself in Chinese language. "That's what I told my mother, but it was really just to eat," she told me with a laugh as we shared an Uber with her Chinese husband, JH, to Flushing, Queens earlier this autumn.
"I'd grown up on chop suey and that kind of thing in the Bay Area, and then when I went to the University of Hawaii I started to eat more genuine Chinese cooking," said Phillips, who wound up spending years working abroad as a translator and interpreter. "When I went to Taiwan, I realized that there's so much more to Chinese cuisine than I'd been led to believe. It was like this endless Chinese box: You'd open up one drawer and there's four other hidden drawers inside, and you keep on opening them up and there's more and more and more. It was this endless bunch of surprises."
It was hardly my first visit to Flushing—where roughly 70 percent of the population is of Asian descent, with most hailing from China—but it was a first for Phillips and her husband. I knew that I could show her the handful of "insider" spots beloved by non-Asians (Tianjin Dumpling House, Fu Run) but had hoped that she and JH would be able to cut through the hype and sniff out the good stuff.
And boy, did she ever.
Our first stop, literally right out of the car, was Jin Feng Fishball Inc., where we ate Fuzhou-style pork-stuffed fish balls swimming in a clear broth with a sprinkling of scallions. Not rubberized like so many fried and grilled fish balls I've had the chance to chew and chew and chew, these were pillowy little orbs that just barely contained the pulverized pork within. As we shared and slurped, I asked Phillips why she decided to write an exhaustive book on Chinese cuisine.
"Well, it didn't start off as exhaustive! Basically, I wanted to record the recipes that I had loved in Taiwan," she said. "Back when we lived in Taiwan, which was the late 70s and early 80s, we had the great chefs of China there, and the foods that we ate were absolutely incredible. When we came back to the United States, I couldn't find them anywhere. I couldn't even find many of the ingredients. So it meant starting from scratch, at certain levels."
As Phillips began to delve into her research, she discovered that even the Chinese were losing touch with their culinary heritage, thanks largely to the Communist revolution. "A lot of the great chefs had left the country. There was no master and apprentice system as they'd had for centuries—that had been destroyed, as part of the revolution. People were not encouraged to become chefs. In Taiwan, as the great chefs died off, their recipes were being lost as well. We went back to these restaurants and the food just wasn't up to snuff. Even in the West, when a great chef leaves, it's really hard to continue in their tradition. I started to look into how to recreate the foods that we love, and that led me to start writing the book."
As we headed to our next destination, Lan Zhou Handmade Noodle in the basement of the Golden Shopping Mall, I confessed my anxiety about Chinese food—that it's just too complex for a non-native to casually comprehend. "What we tend to forget is that China, although it's one massive country, it really is the size of Europe and it's just as complex, historically, culturally, and culinarily, as Europe," Phillips told me, not assuaging my fears one bit. "You have all these different influences, and terrain and climate that really determine what people eat."
Her advice? Just be curious. "There really weren't that many cookbooks out at the time, but I was learning. I was getting as many cookbooks as I could, in Chinese, and then figuring out how to make them. I was also asking friends, and friends' mothers and aunties how they make things, going to the wet markets and watching old ladies wrap tamales [zongzi]."
At Lan Zhou Handmade Noodle, her curiosity continued as she convinced the proprietor to let us into the kitchen to watch noodles get pulled and shaved. (Throughout our tour, the unmistakably Caucasian Phillips would effortlessly switch into Mandarin, only to have Chinese people pause momentarily and then ask almost skeptically, "Why do you speak Chinese so well?") The noodles then reappeared, the shaved ones fried with beef tendons and the others swimming in broth—the famous beef noodle soup of Lanzhou, China. Between bites, another customer quizzed Philipps in Chinese about how to get his non-Asian girlfriend more interested in Chinese food.
As we headed out of the basement, we stopped by another stall offering an array of unmarked meats on a steam table. Phillips pointed, asked a few questions in Chinese, and produced a small plastic bowl of smoked duck parts. Unlike any Chinese food I've ever eaten, they could have easily passed for Memphis barbecue. Phillips explained that smoking is almost never represented in the Cantonese cuisine that dominates the US, but that it's often found in other regions of China. "In Hunan ... the fish is actually cooked over smoke. It's just marvelous. You get a butter fish or something like that, and a very simple dipping sauce, some cilantro and chili peppers—it's mind-blowing. I can't figure out why we don't have that in the West."
And with that, we made our way to the next stop, Red Bowl Noodle Shop, though not for noodles. Instead, we had a light snack of sliced, soy sauced pork stomach and cold chicken, dipped in a classic paste of smashed ginger and scallions. As soon as we'd finished those, it was off to the New World Mall, first to pick up some premium soy sauce, and then to descend into the massive food court, where we watched a young woman prepare crab roe-filled soup dumplings and shared a gut-busting bowl of potato starch noodles with lamb meatballs.
I felt like I'd gotten the culinary CliffsNotes tour that I'd been craving—but it only made me realize how much more I had to learn. Luckily, All Under Heaven is an incredibly rich roadmap to Chinese dishes that I never knew existed, like the corn thimbles of Northern China, stir-fried milk with crab, and camphor-smoked duck.
At the end of a filling afternoon, I asked Phillips if she felt like being an outsider, much like fellow non-Asian Chinese food expert Fuchsia Dunlop, precluded her from discovering truly "authentic" recipes.
"The biggest joy that I get is the feedback I get from Chinese Americans or native Chinese people, who say, 'This is the recipe I was looking for. I've wanted to recreate this dish that my auntie made or my father made or my grandma made, and I never could find it,'" Phillips said. "For example, nobody teaches you how to make a fried red flounder, which is one of the most incredible dishes—to fry this flounder without any batter or flour or anything, and yet the fins fry up really, really crispy, like chips."
She added, "Things like that blow me away. And when you find out, it's like a secret. When I get feedback from people saying, 'This is the food I want to eat, this is the food of my childhood,' I just feel so gratified, like I'm on the right track."