Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Sonny Chiba & me

The new and wonderful Swallow Daily magazine just published a lengthy interview with yours truly...

After the success of the Mission Street Food book, McSweeney’s has decided to publish another cookbook, this time with Carolyn Phillips (aka Madame Huang). She plans for the book to be no less than an in-depth look at all the culinary styles of China. Here we speak to her about her life and the experiences that brought her to the enviable position she’s in today. This being Swallow, we also talk about Sonny Chiba, Hello Kitty and Chinese beer.

“My earliest memory of Chinatown was a trip I took to San Francisco with my mom and grandmother. I remember my grandmother rushing me past what she said were opium dens, and being a very curious five-year-old, all I wanted to do then was to wander in there and find out what opium was.”
– Carolyn Phillips

Where did you grow up? What is your heritage?

I grew up in the heart of Silicon Valley back before the tech boom. It was a quiet and lazy sort of neighborhood surrounded by orchards and distinguished mainly by the smell of prunes. On the surface it was an almost Steven Spielberg version of suburbia, but there was also this strange, dark David-Lynch-meets-Peyton-Place undercurrent.

I’m descended from a Puritan mix on one side of the family and a lot of rednecks on the other. This might help explain why my parents got divorced before long.

Did Chinese food and culture play a large part in your childhood?

My mother played mahjong with the Jewish ladies in the neighborhood when she was pregnant with me, and I’m pretty sure something got transmitted to me in utero. This all has to do with the Chinese belief in taijiao, or education of the fetus: the incessant sound of ivory tiles clacking away while I floated around in amniotic fluid must have been imprinted on my tiny brain. I therefore was never entirely comfortable until I found my way to Taiwan, where every alley was filled with the echoes of clattering tiles.

That aside, my earliest memory of Chinatown was a trip I took to San Francisco with my mom and grandmother. I remember my grandmother rushing me past what she said were opium dens, and being a very curious five-year-old, all I wanted to do then was to wander in there and find out what opium was.

How did you come to be so interested in it later on?

I was first interested in Japanese language and culture while still in high school, and being slightly mad, I took courses in both languages at the same time at the University of Hawaii, which really pushed me over the edge. Then, after college, I wanted to actually be able to speak one or the other, and so I applied to language courses in Tokyo and Taipei.

Tokyo was full, Taipei said yes, and my life’s course suddenly changed track.

What was the first authentic Chinese dish that really blew your mind?

Wow, that would have to be a pressed duck dish I had all to myself one evening when my dad told me I could order whatever I wanted at a local Cantonese restaurant. It had crushed almonds and a plum sauce, and I think it was coated in water chestnut flour before being fried. I couldn’t have been more than nine or ten at the time, but I remember being transported by the vivid flavors and textures, by how wonderful it was to be able to slowly savor something like that with no more than a bowl of steamed rice and an endless pot of hot tea, and by the fact it tasted of something glorious that I never ever had eaten before: duck.

Welcome to my Proustian moment.

You live near San Francisco; what are some of your favourite Chinese restaurants there? 

One thing that really distresses me is that there are so many Chinese people in the Bay Area, but there are no great Chinese restaurants here. Some are passably good, like a small Shanghai joint in Oakland, a Sichuan place on Geary in San Francisco, and a dumpy dim sum hall in the city’s Chinatown, but nothing to really recommend. Monterey Park in the Los Angeles area, on the other hand, has much better variety and quality.

As a result, we almost always eat at home.

Do you cook mostly Asian dishes at home? What are some favourites?

Yes, I cook almost exclusively Chinese, both because my husband and I love it and because I’m researching my upcoming cookbook for McSweeney’s, where I am going to be introducing cuisines from every part of China. I’m lucky in that my husband, J. H. Huang, is a passionate and finicky eater, so he never lets me slide.

My favorites change with whatever region I’m working on, but I love anything involved with Sichuan-style chili oil, juicy chicken, sublimely tender meat, super fresh fish, or fresh noodles. Strike that... I’ll eat just about anything that has its roots in China and is authentic.

Last supper menu would have to include mung bean jelly shreds and dry-fried flounder, for sure. But then again, I’ve just started delving once more into the cuisines of Jiangsu and Zhejiang at the mouth of the Yangtze River, and everything there is so divine that I would probably have to apply for a lengthy delay in my sentence as I loosened my belt and then ate through their vast repertoires. And then I’d ask for a reprieve as I worked my way around the rest of China.

If I kept that up, I could live forever.

How did you get published by McSweeney's? Who do you know? How did you get your manuscript to stand out from the millions of others submitted by starving hipsters everywhere?

You know, I am still trying to figure that one out.

I didn’t really know anyone there personally. It was just the luck of the draw, I guess. I’d been turned down by absolutely every other publisher and had gone through three or four agents and had pretty much given up when McSweeney’s suddenly said yes. To say I’m incredibly lucky is both a gross understatement and also a boring cliché, but it’s also very, very true. I just hope I don’t wake up and find this has all been a dream.

How does one put together a winning manuscript? Well, I can only speak for myself here, but I think that you have to a) be very passionate about whatever it is you want to write about, and b) you have to have something new to say. These two seem simple enough on the surface, but what they require is both comprehensive knowledge about a subject and also an innovative way to express your ideas. It doesn’t hurt to be able to write well and fast, and also to love to do nothing better than sit down and write all day even when the sun is shining and everyone wants to go out and play.

As for myself, I am completely and truly happy for the first time in my life. This is what I think everything in my little world has been building up to since, well, forever. I have had an endless list of jobs since I was 13, and some of them eventually were pretty sweet, like working as the chief translator at Taipei’s National Museum of History and National Central Library for five years.

But as wonderful as those positions were, they weren’t careers, and as much as they taught me, they were merely stepping stones, no more than temporary way stations in life, just like everything else. I then worked in the federal and state courts here in California as a professional Mandarin interpreter for over a decade; again, I learned a whole lot and it was interesting, but I didn’t exactly bound out of bed in the morning, ready to start work with a smile on my face.

No, for that, I had to become a food writer.

Is it a dream come true to be published in Lucky Peach or are you all la di da, all in a day's work about it?

It’s a dream, no question about it. When I picked up the first issue of Lucky Peach at a Whole Foods store over a year ago, I was totally blown away. I mean, everything in there was so incredibly on point and fun and informative and provocative and intelligent.

I thought at the time, wouldn’t it be nice one day if… and here it is a year later, and I’m in the fifth issue. It’s unreal.

What is your advice to aspiring food writers who want to get published?

First, be nice to people, since you never know who might end up helping you along the way.

Second, learn all you can every hour of every day, because everything is useful at some time or another. Turn off the TV and Internet, pick up a book that interests you, and see what the author can teach you. Really: read, read, read.

Third, really get to know your stuff, and by that I mean that if you are going to write a book about, say, the cooking traditions of the Hebrides Islands, you had better know everything there is to learn about the cooking traditions of the Hebrides Islands. Not only that, but you should be able to speak and write Gaelic fluently, and you should be spending at least part of your life in the English Channel so that you understand both the people and their culture inside out.

Fourth, learn to write a great proposal. Spend lots of time writing it and figuring out what it is you are planning to do, and be sure and read books on how to write a proposal. Write draft after draft after draft of your proposal; this takes time and patience while you hammer out what it is you want to tell the world.

Once you’ve written that proposal and are satisfied, ask some writer friends to edit your words mercilessly. Once you’ve done that, polish your proposal some more until it shines, and then start to look for a publisher or an agent. Whatever happens, don’t give up, no matter how many people say no, because you only need one person to say yes.

And finally, write like your life depended on it. Write every day. Make it a habit. Learn to make the words work for you. Develop your voice on paper.

If you don’t love this whole process, then find something else to do with your life. Writing is hard, lonely work. But if it is what you love and it is a genuine compulsion, then you’re one of the lucky ones and you’ll do it no matter what obstacles are thrown in your way.

What writers do you enjoy (food, fiction, any genre)?

For cooking, oh boy, the list is enormous. I am a real fangirl of a great triumvirate of Chinese-American women writers from the late sixties and early seventies, back when comprehensive Chinese cookbooks were a true rarity: I’m talking about Irene Kuo, Grace Zia Chu, and the wonderful Florence Lin. The books by these ladies are still as readable and useful today as they were decades ago. I’m especially fortunate that Mrs. Lin is still very much alive and well, and we have become friends. How great is it to know a legend, to meet one of your heroes?

Nothing makes me sink into my reading chair faster than a great novel. I love Salinger, Dumas père, Neal Stephenson, Dave Eggers, Anthony Burgess, Collette, Henry James, Austen, George Eliot... they all are on my eternal reread list.

One genre I adore is old travelogues by proper British ladies in the Victorian and Edwardian eras, especially if they wander around on a camel or mule with no more than a local guide in China, the Middle East, or some godforsaken desert somewhere. Those courageous and curious women never fail to astonish.


Martial arts - Sonny Chiba or Bruce Lee?

There is nothing better than a movie with Bruce Lee; he made kung fu look effortless, like a ballet, and he was, I think, the first true Chinese movie star in the West.

That being said, Sonny Chiba has been a hero of mine since the Street Fighter series back in the seventies. (Favorite one in that series: Sister Street Fighter.) My husband and I used to buy braised duck tongues and chicken feet outside this cruddy old theater in downtown Taipei, sneak in some beer, and watch double martial arts features during our early years together. And that’s when I fell head over heels with Jackie Chan, too.

Steamed buns or jiaozi?

Jiaozi, jiaozi, jiaozi.

Celebrity chef: David Chang or Masaharu Morimoto?

Ooh, tough one. I truly admire Chef Morimoto’s allegiance to traditional Japanese cuisine. But Chef Chang’s versatility with key components of Chinese, Korean, and Japanese dishes has allowed him to form a fusion cuisine that is very exciting and intelligent. I admire them both immensely. It’s a draw.

Favourite brand of soy sauce?

Sad to say, but none, really. Japanese shoyu and tamari don’t taste like Chinese soy sauce – too light and salty. But the Chinese ones are really dicey, as there’s no control on food products on the Mainland; I don’t even buy their vinegar.

Some of the organic Taiwanese ones are pretty good, like Wan Ja Shan’s. However, I have been working on brewing some homemade soy sauce in my kitchen, and so far, so good. (I have so many crocks and jars with pickles and wines and brews in here smelling up the place that it is more like a mad doctor’s lair than a kitchen.)

Favourite Chinese beer?

For sentimental reasons, Taiwan Beer.

I know it's Japanese, but Hello Kitty or Badtz Maru?

Hello Kitty definitely, and let me tell you why. I used to find her insipid to the nth degree, but this all changed in the Chinese Wild West town of Jiayuguan in Gansu.

Jiayuguan is on the ancient Silk Road and was therefore one of the few land gateways into China, but it was also the place where people were banished from the empire for all time. Well, we went there on a visit, and I was really anticipating this stop since it has such a romantic, fearsome reputation. It’s in the middle of a desert mountain pass, very isolated and barren. But we landed there on the one day of the year when it rains buckets.

It poured so hard we could barely see more than a few feet, and of course we hadn’t brought rain gear, so I was delighted when an enterprising young woman sold me an umbrella. Upon opening it, I found Hello Kitty emblazoned on the mauve fabric, and she’s been my good luck totem ever since. I even have a Chinese Hello Kitty calendar in the kitchen every year, with the cat dressed up as the different zodiac animals; it’s a hallowed tradition that she always stand guard over the place where I work… in her Chinese incarnation, of course.