Phoenix Claws and Jade Trees: Essential Techniques of Authentic Chinese Cooking, written by Kian Lam Kho, is a detailed guide for the home cook into the fundamental techniques surrounding Chinese cuisine with 158 recipes. The title is named after the metonyms- phoenix claws for chicken feet and jade trees for gailan (Chinese broccoli). While you won’t find chicken feet or gailan among the pages, there is a large assortment of well-known dishes (Red-Cooked Pork, General Tso’s Chicken, Sweet-and-Sour Pork, Mapo Tofu, Marbled Tea Egg, Peking Duck) along with even more that I had never heard of before (Steamed Beef with Cracked Rice, West Lake Vinegar Tilapia, Flavor-Potted Beef Shank, Braised Frog with Wisconsin Ginseng).
Kian Lam Kho is a food writer, private chef, and teacher. Before starting his culinary career, he was an aerospace engineer and developed software for Wall Street. He is now the writer behind the James Beard Foundation Award nominated food blog, Red Cook. He also teaches Chinese cooking classes at the Institute of Culinary Education, Brooklyn Kitchen, and Haven’s Kitchen along with working as a guest chef at various restaurants and as a caterer for special Chinese banquets in New York.
Chapters are divided based on technique: The Essence of Chinese Food, The Chinese Kitchen, The Chinese Pantry, Basic Ingredient Preparation, Chinese Stocks, Harnessing the Breath of a Wok (Simple Stir-Fry, Dry Stir-Fry, Moist Stir-Fry, Dry-Fry, Scramble Stir-Fry), Explosion in the Wok (Flash-Fry, Flash-Poaching), Dipping in Oil (Light Frying, Deep-Frying, Oil Steeping, Yin-Yang Frying, Pan-Frying), Flavoring with Sauces (Saucing after Deep-Frying, Saucing after Oil Poaching, Saucing after Boiling or Steaming, Broth Flavoring after Deep-Frying, Broth Flavoring after Pan-Frying), The Virtue of Slow Cooking (Red Cooking, Men Braising, Dun Braising, Wei Braising, Flavor Potting), The Intricacy of Boiling (Boiling, Steeping, Blanching, Hot Pot), The Power of Steam (Simple Steaming, Flavored Steaming), The Making of Hearty Soups (Clear Soup, Thickened Soup, Braised Soup, Steamed Soup), Playing with Fire (Hang Roasting, Oven Roasting, Grilling, Hot Plate Grilling, Salt Baking, Clay Roasting), Enriching with Smoke (Smoking Raw Ingredients, Smoking Parcooked Ingredients), Appetizing Cold Dishes (Dressed Cold Dishes, Brine-Pickled Dishes, Fermented Pickled Dishes, Aspic), and Sweet but Not Dessert (Cooking in Syrup, Caramel Coating, Sugar Coating).
The book begins with a highly detailed introduction of Chinese cuisine and cooking styles. The history behind the prominent culinary regions (Guangdong/Yue, Fujian/Min, Sichuan/Chuan, Hunan/Xiang, Jiangsu/Su, Zhejiang/Zhe, Anhui/Hui, Shandong/Lu, Beijing/Jing, Shanghai/Hu, Hainan/Qiong, Yunnan/Dian, and Xinjian and Western Regions are included with a historical timeline and regional map of China. Minus the delicious food, this may be my favorite chapter. I love when cookbooks include background of the dishes and traditions surrounding particular mealtime customs such as banquets (the Man Han Quan Xi/Manchu Han Imperial Feast was the most luxurious one ever recorded with six meals over three days- each meal had thirty-six courses!). The section on the Chinese Kitchen describes the tools and utensils needed to carry out the recipes: types of cleavers, cutting board, woks, wok lid, steamers, and clay pots. The Chinese Pantry describes many of the aromatics, herbs, spices, starches, sauces, condiments, wines and vinegars, fats, oils, and dried delicacies used in the recipes. Novice cooks will benefit from the section on knife techniques and other preparation steps. There are even step-by-step photos on how to butterfly a fish.
Many of the dishes use stock as a foundation. While it may seem easier to use store-bought, making the stock recipes provided will add an extra depth of flavor and create natural glutamates instead of using artificial MSG. Following a little extra effort, I now have a few quart size bags in my freezer filled with beef and chicken stock for future use (and just as easy as grabbing a carton from the shelf).
The names of the dishes are provided in English and Hanzi (Chinese characters). I particularly appreciate that the region of origin is also listed under the title. Every recipe has a headnote that includes background information and helpful tips. Measurements are provided in US Customary.
The over 200 photos were taken by Jody Horton with food styling by Suzanne Lenzer and prop styling by Johanna Lowe. Many of the recipes (but not all) include a full page photo of the finished product. A few step-by steps are included as well, such as knife skills and how to prepare Peking Duck and Flash-Fried Fresh Squid. There are also photographs of some of the herbs, aromatics, and spices in the pantry section.
This book is an excellent choice for home cooks wanting to learn more about Chinese cuisine and techniques. Novice cooks in particular will find the highly detailed methods of preparation incredibly helpful. Most of the ingredients are available in larger grocery stores, but a few notable spices, sauces, and vegetables will require a trip to an Asian food market specializing in Chinese cuisine or purchasing online. There are plenty of fish and shellfish recipes for the seafood lover. There are also a variety of other proteins: pork, offal, tofu, beef, lamb, chicken, Chinese bacon, rabbit, duck, and even frog. Vegetarian dishes include Garlic Stir-Fried Greens, Dry-Fried Lotus Root, Sichuan Crisp Fried Wild Mushrooms, Blanched Asparagus with Ginger Soy Sauce, and more. Take note that dim sum techniques and recipes are not included, so you won’t find any dumplings or breads. As you learn the methods in this book, you will also be able to mix and match ingredients to your taste.
Kian Lam Kho includes a sweets chapter, but specifies they are not desserts. Traditionally Chinese meals do not have a dessert course, though Western influences are starting to change that. Instead, sweetened dishes are served alongside the main meal. He details the various sweetened coatings, finishing with the sugar coating and a recipe for Sugar-Coated Cashew Nuts. Through a technique that is also described as “snow coating”, whole cashew nuts are coated in a melted sugar coconut syrup, then tossed with confectioners’ sugar. They were quite addictive and would make the perfect accompaniment to the upcoming holidays or even as gifts. Kian Lam Kho also adds that a little almond extract or milk powder would make good substitutions for the coconut.
Once the sugar has reached the right temperature, the trick is to move quickly as you add the coconut and cashews, toss, add sugar, and spread across the parchment paper. Allow to cool before serving.
I also made Stir-Fried Lo Mein with Barbecued Pork, Red-Cooked Beef, Fried Sesame Pork Tenderloin, and White Cooked Chicken.
For the Stir-Fried Lo Mein, I first made the recipe for Barbecued Pork and saved enough from dinner to for the lo mein the next night. The pork is incredibly easy to make and packed with flavor. It is first marinated in a hoisin-based sauce, then roasted until cooked through. The cooked pork is thinly sliced and tossed with garlic, ginger, carrots, bean sprouts, and fresh lo mein noodles. When making stir-fried dishes, it is important to have all the ingredients prepped before cooking since the actual time on the stove is so fast. The dish is lightly seasoned with rice wine, salt, and pepper. The meal came together quickly and tasted so much better than the lo mein take-out often weighed down in a thick, gooey sauce.
Red-Cooked Beef was one of the many red-cooked options in The Virtues of Slow Cooking chapter. Cubes of stewing beef are first parboiled, then braised in a seasoned beef stock with star anise, cassia bark, tangerine peel, Sichuan peppercorns, fennel seeds, and red chiles. Towards the end of cooking, vegetables are added to round out the dish. I like the idea of adding extra stock to turn this into a noodle soup. This recipe was Chad’s favorite and perfect for the cooler temperatures outside.
The Fried Sesame Pork Tenderloin is a Cantonese dish made by coating thinly sliced pieces of pork in a sesame seed batter and frying until golden and crunchy. Kian Lam Kho recommends serving it with the Sweet-and-Sour Dipping Sauce. Chad particularly enjoyed having the leftovers with salad.
This White Cooked Chicken may just be the easiest recipe I have ever tried for cooking a whole chicken. A large pot of water is lightly seasoned with white rice wine, ginger, and scallions. It is brought to a boil, then the chicken is added whole. After coming back to a boil, the heat is turned off and the pot is covered to allow the chicken to steep until cooked through. The finished chicken is cut into serving pieces and drizzled with vegetable and sesame oil. It is served with a garlic ginger dipping sauce. I took the extra bones and tossed them back in the pot to simmer to save as chicken broth for later.
Disclaimer: I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for my honest review. All comments and opinions are my own.
Sugar-Coated Cashew Nuts
Adapted from Phoenix Claws and Jade Trees: Essential Techniques of Authentic Chinese Cooking
1/2 cup granulated sugar
3 tablespoons water
1/4 cup desiccated finely shredded coconut
2 cups (8 ounces) unsalted dry-roasted cashews
2 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar
Line a large baking sheet or flat surface with parchment.
In a large wok, combine granulated sugar and water over medium heat. Without stirring, allow the sugar to melt and form large white bubbles. Cook until the temperature reaches 250 degrees F and the bubbles become smaller. Add the coconut, then toss in the cashews until are fully coated.
Remove from heat and toss in the confectioners’ sugar. Pour over the parchment paper and spread into a single layer. Allow to cool before serving. Store in an airtight container.