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Recap: Pieces of China (S3, E12): Carolyn Phillips on the Wok, 6.2.21

Recap: Pieces of China (S3, E12): Carolyn Phillips on the Wok, 6.2.21

Pieces of China is an online series using objects to tell the story of China.

Season 3, Episode 12 was a delicious introduction to China Institute’s Food & Ideas Festival! This initial public program explored the magic of the Chinese wok and all the cooking methods you can do with it: Stir frying, steaming, pan frying, deep frying, poaching, boiling, braising, searing, smoking, and stewing! Celebrated cookbook writer Carolyn Phillips talks about the wok and what she learned about China when her Chinese in-laws taught her how to cook with it.

Carolyn Phillips (CP) is an author and illustrator of two published books on China’s cuisines, as well as her upcoming memoir, At the Chinese Table. Her prose, articles, illustrations, and recipes have appeared in many major publications. The Atlantic included one of her essays in its “More Than 100 Exceptional Works of Journalism.” She has been a finalist for two James Beard Awards and is now a member of the James Beard Award Book Committee.

Selected Quotes from Pieces of China, Season 3, Episode 12:

Dinda Elliott, Moderator: We are so excited to have with us Carolyn Phillips for the first program of our Food & Ideas Festival happening all June!

CP: The wok seems to be a relatively “new” utensil in China- about 2,000 years old- this started around the Han dynasty and this started because of material. Iron evolved into steel and instead of swords and shields, it [got to the public].

DE: What did you learn about China through your wok?

CP: The first time I used a wok was in my mom’s kitchen. I used it on my mom’s electric stove and I put foil around the base to increase the heat and I blew out the stove! Mom got me a Westbend Electric Wok that I still have- it is good for steaming!

When I went to Taiwan [as a student], I learned how to make stir frys, pan fried fish, and I would hover over my host mother.

It was very hard to learn the language but what I could understand was food! So my Chinese [future husband] was buying me cookbooks and that was when I had to learn- these were all cookbooks in Chinese.

DE: You had some important cooking experiences with your Chinese in-laws. Tell us about them.

CP: My father in law was a WWII fighter pilot for the Nationalists and fought against the Japanese. He was stationed in Southern China. He was Haka, from Guangdong, and his father was an area mayor who graduated from law school, and he ran away to join the air force. It was upsetting for the family who had a life planned out for him. He was following his dream, and became a hero during WWII. His company had just completed a foray but were low on fuel. He made sure everyone was safe but he was running on fumes and when he was [attempting to land] he was [severely injured]. He was rescued by the air force and [was treated by a MASH unit] and loved Americans after that!

DE: Tell us about cooking with him.

CP: We cooked together because we were the quiet members of the family, hiding in the kitchen together. For Chinese New Year, he would make stuffed tofu, or vinegar chicken, steamed fish. He had a huge banquet he would prepare out of a small kitchen. We would hide in there and cook all day. I would watch him and pick up on what he did.

DE: You also learned a lot about traditional Chinese culture, from him.

CP: Well yes, I had to be a submissive daughter to him. I always called him the formal address nin(您), which basically means “thou!” It was great though because I was treated as a daughter-in-law. I understood the game and we really got along.

My mother in law was from Tianjin, and her father was a warlord’s lieutenant. She grew up in a very wealthy family. But the problem was that her mother didn’t bear sons so her father abandoned them. And then her father was assassinated…and she had to escape to the South. She was very imperious, a bit of a dowager empress.

But one afternoon, we invited her over for a lunch. And I had learned how to cook Northern [Chinese] food- specifically Chestnut Thimbles 栗子窩窩頭ㄦ (lizi wowotou’r). You soak these dried chestnuts and then make them into a dough and steam them…she was doing her usual scowl at me…And then she started to smell the dish and her eyes sparkled as she looked at the stove. The warm breath of chestnuts came over her and she reached over and took a bite with her chopsticks and you saw her shoulders relax. The last time she had them was at her mother’s house before the war- at least 40 years.

It opened her up. [The stories came tumbling out]. We didn’t even know what year she was born!

DE: Why is learning about this more traditional form of Chinese culture still important?

CY: This culture is one of the longest lasting cultures in the world, providing us with the world’s greatest thinkers. We really need to connect that, if we lose it, it is gone forever. Looking back in my life with my in-laws and hearing their stories, their lives were microcosms of Chinese history. The traditional China that existed for thousands of years had this dramatic rift and became a part of what we call the modern world. Seeing as how their lives evolved- and how it hurt them in many ways, being uprooted from their families…at the same time they were thrust into the modern, Western world. It was fascinating seeing that unfold before my eyes.

DE: And today, people in China are looking back to their roots and their history.

CP: They are fascinated by their roots, and they should be. They feel a disconnection to something that is a part of them. Part of it is cooking, learning to cook the foods of their grandparents.

Full Video of Pieces of China with Carolyn Phillips

This program is part of China Institute’s Food & Ideas Festival, a month-long exploration of modern China through food, happening all June!

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