Monday, August 22, 2016

Tomatoes, sour plum powder, & wonderful advance reviews for All Under Heaven

A quick bit of self-promotion before we get to this week’s recipe:

All Under Heaven is receiving terrific advance reviews! Here are some of the things people are saying:

"This unprecedented reference will thrill cooks who want to expand their knowledge and move beyond the mainstays of American Chinese restaurant menus. Those who enjoy the thoroughly researched cookbooks of experts such as Claudia Roden (The New Book of Middle Eastern Food) will appreciate Phillips’s comprehensive treatment, which includes historical information, an extensive ingredient glossary, suggested menus, and useful advice." — Library Journal, Starred Review

"Phillips (The Dim Sum Field Guide) offers a comprehensive and thoughtful examination of Chinese cuisine, providing a wealth of appealing recipes for beginner and advanced cooks... This is a broad and discerning approach to regional Chinese cooking... Buy This Book" – Publishers Weekly

"This has the makings of an all-time classic." – Epicurious

"This is sure to be this year's best cookbook, I have no doubt." – Cookbook Junkies

"Carolyn Phillips has written one of the best books on Chinese cooking that I’ve ever encountered. This is one of those books that will inspire all of us to get into our kitchens and cook. It is also one of those books that is almost as enthralling as a bestselling thriller. Phillips is a first-rate writer, and has made this a 'must-have' cookbook for inclusion in any respectable recipe collection." – NetGalley, Five Star Review

"What a work of art... I have always welcomed any book that expands the horizons of our knowledge of Chinese food; now comes one of the best I have seen in ages. All Under Heaven is not just a mere cookbook – in fact, it may be the most comprehensive work to date on an incredibly complex subject... I cannot praise Carolyn’s work enough; I am sure that in the coming years, All Under Heaven will come to be considered a classic, as well as an invaluable reference for any serious cook’s kitchen." – Ken Hom, OBE, celebrity chef and author

Thank you all for these amazing words. I’m humbled and delighted and thrilled! These two books hit the shelves on August 30, but can be preordered just about everywhere.

Also, this just got published on Food52: "How to Dim Sum Like a Pro." Happy eating!

*   *   *

It’s the end of summer, a time when tomatoes and melons are at their absolute best. True, tomatoes are not constant members of a Chinese cook’s produce bin, but they do show up, especially in Muslim areas, as well as in Cantonese cooking, probably because these love apples go especially well with beef.

I practically lived on tomato beef over crispy noodles during my first year in Taipei, since there was one little Guangdong-style stand on Songjiang Road halfway between my classrooms and the Chinese home where I boarded. The lady there knew exactly what I wanted: a slightly sweet-and-sour sauce, barely cooked wedges of bright red tomatoes, thin and tender slices of seared beef, a scattering of green onions, and a crunchy pillow of thin egg noodles. It was intensely good.

Now's the time for tomatoes
As I started to become more accustomed to the local cuisines, the Taiwanese affection for matching salty with sweet drew my attention. First to hook me was the penchant for sprinkling salt on cold wedges of watermelon. At first this seemed totally unnecessary – after all, you really can’t find a better dessert than ripe fruit served up all on its own – but a few exploratory nibbles showed that a tiny bit of salt emphasized the sweetness and made each mouthful just that more delicious.

Pretty soon I was enjoying things like inspired mixtures of peanuts and cilantro and sugar, which hit all sorts of nerve endings in my mouth, puzzling and intriguing and pleasing and confusing my palate at the same time. And then I discovered sour plum powder, which my Chinese girlfriends liberally dusted on top of crisp guavas and ripe tomatoes.

To be honest, my girls all loved tart flavors much more than sweet – and that’s true even to this day when they can no longer be officially categorized as girls – and so anything that would lend a sour note to a dish was welcomed with open chopsticks. And when a dish or drink was especially puckery and delicious, the usual reaction was a delighted smile with a slightly agonized expression, a happy moan, and the rubbing of one side of the face while they exclaimed, “Ay-ya, that’s good!”

This one is just the flesh
Summer was celebrated in particularly lavish style: luscious tomatoes were seasoned with the sweet-sour-salty plums called huàméi . Dried little taupe nuggets, these are usually used to accompany tea, but also find their way into certain dishes, like these eggs or pork ribs. It’s an almost indescribable flavor, since you also have a fruity layer that somehow glues all of those disparate elements together.

You can cut off the flesh from the pits and then stick little slivers inside of cherry tomatoes before chilling them, or you can even peel the tomatoes, toss them with the sour plum powder, and let them marinate in the fridge overnight. Both are good.

But when you have some amazing tomatoes to work with, sometimes simplest is best. This requires that you first get your hands on Taiwanese style sour plums. Be sure that they are called huamei, as any other kind will taste very different and quite possibly be too sour to eat. (See Sour Plum Infusion for more on that.) If you can find the ones that are already pitted like this photo on the right, even better. If not, just use kitchen shears or a sharp paring knife to trim off the flesh – the pits can be reserved for tea, which is great hot or chilled.
Pitted sour plums

Do note that the flavor of each brand of plums varies wildly. Some are coated with lots of ground herbs, like licorice, while others are incredibly salty or a bit sweet or just mildly sour. So, taste the dried plums and add as much sugar or salt as you think it needs. Use a spice grinder here, rather than a mini food processor, as it gets the job done easily. Pulse the plums up in short bursts, not at full blast, and let the grinder cool down as needed. This will help prevent the sugar in the plums from heating up and gumming up the works.

Make extra sour plum powder, as it keeps well. Then get in touch with your inner Chinese woman and sprinkle it on pineapple, melons, cucumbers... whatever needs a flavor boost.

Note: you can occasionally find this powder ready-made in some Chinese markets, but it tends to be padded out with citric acid and other stuff, as well as red food coloring. So, try it if you like, but compare it with this homemade pinch of heaven. There's no contest.

Tomatoes with sour plum powder
Méizifěn fānqié 梅子粉蕃茄
Serves 4

Around 1/2 cup / 60 g pitted dried sour plums (huamei)
2 tablespoons sugar, or to taste
1 teaspoon sea salt, or to taste
1 pound / 450 g ripe and fully flavored tomatoes of any kind, preferably a mixture of two or more varieties

1. If your dried plums are not pitted, then use kitchen shears or a sharp paring knife to remove the flesh. Place the dried plums in a clean, dry spice grinder and pulse until they are reduced to a fine powder (see headnotes). Add as much sugar and salt as is needed, pulse again, and taste – there should be a nice balance of sweet, salty, and sour, so adjust things as needed. Store the sour plum powder in a dry jar in the pantry.
Ready to go

2. Rinse the tomatoes, pat dry, and trim as needed. If they are cherry or plum tomatoes, no further work is needed. Slice larger fruits up into wedges. Arrange these on a plate or bowl. They can be chilled if you like, but I personally prefer room temperature, which allows their flavors to really bloom. Offer little saucers of the sour plum powder around the tomatoes and sprinkle a tiny bit on top of the fruit. Serve with forks, chopsticks, or long skewers.


Your spice grinder will probably have bits of sour plum gunk stuck on the blades and so forth. Don't soak the machine or wash it, but rather wipe it out with a damp cloth immediately after you've emptied it, then thoroughly air dry the grinder before closing it up.


  1. Hi Carolyn,

    I've been looking forward to your book for about 18 months. The day is very near now :)

    I was wondering if you knew anything about pricing. The book is a lot more expensive on Amazon UK, a full $15 more than on Amazon US.
    I could have a copy shipped from the US and still save money versus the UK price, however I'll have to wait two weeks longer.

    Do you have any suggestions for cheaper places to buy? I am not wealthy!


    1. Hi Huw,

      Thank you so much for the very kind words! Have you considered the Kindle version? It might be a good way to go if you're into digital books at all (totally understand if you're not!). I'm hoping that there might be a UK edition in the near future...

    2. Hi Carolyn,

      Thanks for your response. There are advantages to a digital version but I like to hold the object in my hands! I did some more searching and found your book here on Abebooks
      a fair bit cheaper and apparently already shipping ?!

      I'm really looking forward to it and what with having just picked up Fuchsia Dunlop's new book as well, I'm going to have my hands full.

    3. Wow, I wonder how that happened. Congratulations, though. Perseverance really paid off, and I thank you for going the extra mile here!

  2. Just stumbled onto your blog looking for recipes, it's wonderful! Thank you so much for posting such authentic thoughtful recipes that remind me of my mom's home cooking. As a collector of Chinese cookbooks I'm looking forward to adding yours, the cover is gorgeous! Congrats!

    1. This is the kind of thing that makes me happiest! I love it when readers tell me that these recipes allow them both to connect to their families and hand down the things that graced their parents' grandparents' tables. It's an honor and a genuine pleasure. Thank you!

  3. Congratulations on the book and the great reviews! I'm looking forwards to reading it and trying out the recipes.

    1. Thank you, Sean! Your kind words mean the world to me.

  4. Looking at this recipe makes me salivate esp sour plums. Tomatoes and sour plums are so complimentary. I never thought to use sour plum powder with tomatoes as I take the lazy route by inserting a sour plum into a tomato with the center cut out. Wait and while and then dig in - I'll have to try your way some time.

    Congrats on the book - waiting for it to come so I can dive in!

    1. Thank you, Jane! Your way of sticking sour plums in tomatoes is just as authentic and delicious. I actually think my way is lazier! Just grind up the plums and then have them ready whenever you want. Enjoy the tomatoes while you can!