By a curious coincidence an opportunity to review this book
came in the same time period as a realization that I haven’t had Chinese food
in years. And I love Chinese food. Ordering Chinese
takeout never failed to make me feel more American than McDonald's French Fries ever
could. In some ways because of the word
“French” in the name but mostly because I gave up French Fries in 1997 after an
innocent-looking 3-credit college course called Nutrition changed my eating
So why did I stop eating Chinese food? It fell victim to my college education. I took another course on nutrition, this time
the Biology and Chemistry of Food and learned that Chinese food is full of MSG,
flavor enhancer that is commonly deemed “as safe.” To my mind if the question of something being
“safe” arises in the first place, I cannot bring myself to ingest it. Why do it when there are so many other
Healthy Chinese Food
I generally cook all my food from fresh simple
ingredients. I check labels religiously
and don’t buy anything with any sort of preservatives. So imagine my excitement when I realized that this cookbook fits with my cooking philosophy. I can have Chinese food and eat it too. Surprise, surprise, homemade Chinese food is healthy! Most of flavor in the recipes come from spices,
herbs like mint and chives, wine, soy sauce, garlic, ginger, stock but often it’s
just salt and pepper.
Here is a full list of ingredients for Chinese Chicken Soup
chicken breast, coconuts, chicken stock, ginger, goji berries
, salt and
pepper. I’m sold! I make my own chicken stock, but if you need
to buy one just watch out and buy chicken stock that is labeled “MSG free” or
“no added MSG,” if it doesn’t say that specifically you can be sure you stock
will contain some kind of nasty additive.
I thought it might be difficult to find the required
ingredients for authentic Chinese meal, but so far everything I needed was easily
available at Whole Foods or Amazon store, which is specifically good news if
you are into jujube
or tangerine peel
(both marked as “healthy foods,” mind
you). For the rest of us kelp
might be the limits of our experimenting selves. Surprisingly most dishes do not require much
beyond the scope of a regular supermarket.
Here are ingredients for famous Peking Duck
: duck, honey, vinegar,
cucumber, scallion and sweet bean paste (red bean, sugar, water). Sweet
bean paste is the only specialty ingredients and it’s readily available on
The most commonly used thickening agent in the book is tapioca flour/starch,
which is gluten-free and available everywhere. It was especially happy about this because I
have five bags of tapioca in my pantry. Why? I keep thinking that I’m running out and keep
buying more. I realize it provides
groundwork for a new age syndrome The-fear-of-being-out-of-tapioca
There are 158 recipes in the book that range from simple to
complex. On the simple end are simple
stir-fries like Garlic Stir-fried Green, Pancakes, Cucumber salad, Blanched
Asparagus, and Chinese celery and pressed tofu salad. On the difficult end are General Tso’s
chicken, Red-cooked lion’s head, and all the fish and slow cooking dishes just
because more ingredients and longer instructions require more time and effort
in the kitchen (all in good fun, if you enjoy cooking and eating yummy homemade
food). I want to try every recipe in this book,
except maybe flash-fried pig stomach and crispy eel.
The book starts with detailed information about the Essence
of Chinese cooking, Chinese kitchen and Chinese pantry. It’s not just about cleavers, woks, steams and
clay pots. You will get a course on aromatics,
fresh herbs, spices, starches, sauces, cooking wines, flavored oils, vinegar,
cooking fats and condiments (surprise: many of these can be easily made at home
without preservatives). There is also information about pickled
ingredients and dried specialties, but for me it was a bit more than I needed
to know. On the other hand, if you
always wanted to know how sea cucumber looks, you will have you wish.
After you read up on Basic Ingredients preparation and how
to prepare Chinese stocks, which are basis of many Chinese dishes, you get to
the twelve recipes chapters divided by cooking techniques. I didn’t realize
there was so many - roasting, boiling, stir-frying, steaming, flash-pouching,
oil-steeping, and braising - just to name a few.
If you like Stir-Fry then let me tell you that Chapter 6
called Harnessing the Breath of Wok consists of 5 subdivisions: simple
stir-fry, dry stir-fry, moist stir-fry, dry-fry, and scramble stir-fry. I will never think of stir-fry the same way
again. The chapter on boiling is divided
into four different kinds of boiling: boiling, steeping, blanching, and hot
pot. Quite frankly it’s much more than I
My favorite part of the book is the one on fish basics. I love fish but don’t cook it enough with the
exception of salmon and tilapia fillets.
I am one of those people who stand in front of fish display in Whole
Foods looking longingly at fish, and then shrug and walk away because I
don’t dare to bring a whole fish into my kitchen. What would I do with it! This book has detailed photo-by-photo
instructions on how to handle fish from cleaning up to cooking it, which definitely takes the fear out of serving fish.
If you think, why in
the world would I want a whole fish when I can buy a fillet and skip the messy
work, think again! Fillet doesn’t come
close to the taste of fish prepared whole.
I grew up with eager fishermen and ate lots of freshly caught fish of
all sizes and varieties prepared at home whole and in parts.
My taste buds are finely tuned to the nuances of fish flavor and no
matter how skillfully I prepare fish fillets they never are as flavorful and complete as they should be.
Phoenix Claws and Jade Trees is a wonderful cookbook that inspires to cook. The pages are extra thick and pleasure to
handle. The beautiful photographs, all
240 of them, are really a work of art. I
especially enjoyed the step-by-step photos.
It’s as close as you can get to taking an actual cooking class. I like how the book breaks down classical
Chinese cuisine into logical sequence of steps: aromatics, knife techniques,
stocks… by the time we get to the actual cooking recipes make sense. The book truly educates. It doesn’t simply catalog the recipes. There are complex and poetic descriptions of
cooking techniques and detailed information on how and why it works and where
the flavor is coming from. The Chinese
way of cooking differs from many other countries. I felt positively extravagant standing in my
kitchen with a star anise in hand. I am
confident that with a bit of effort the recipes in the book can be mastered by
anyone, even a beginner cook. And using
this book will definitely increase your culinary repertoire.
I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for an honest review. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions expressed are my own. This post contains amazon affiliate links. If you click on my link and purchase something, I will receive a small percent of your purchase at no extra cost to you.