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Friday, December 4, 2015

Phoenix Claws and Jade Trees (essential techniques of Authentic Chinese Cooking)

Chinese cookbook

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 habits forever.

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 options available?

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. 

Chinese Ingredients
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 and goji berries 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 amazon. 

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. 

Book Layout
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 imagined.

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. 


Final Thoughts
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.  

For more information about the author or to buy the book check Random House website or Amazon store.  

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.