02 Dec / A Q+A on Authentic Chinese Cooking with Kian Lam Kho and a “Phoenix Claws and Jade Trees” Giveaway!
The poetic title, Phoenix Claws and Jade Trees (metonyms for chicken feet and Chinese broccoli respectively), reflects the book’s depth and detail. Those who are familiar with author Kian Lam Kho’s blog, RedCook.net, will not be disappointed with the book’s meticulous and comprehensive content, all enhanced by Jody Horton’s gorgeous photography. (In the interest of full disclosure, Kian is my friend’s uncle.)
Kian’s debut cookbook is an opus on the ancient art of Chinese cooking. To me, Chinese cooking is an art form to be learned and practiced, just like sculpture or dance. Kian’s cookbook is proves this. And he is the patient, dedicated teacher to guide you through the process.
Phoenix Claws and Jade Trees teaches techniques and methods that, once mastered, will allow you to turn any ingredients you have in your pantry or fridge into a delicious meal. In this way, this is a cookbook unlike many others. Divided into chapters on frying, braising (red-cooking being the most popular), boiling, steaming, smoking, and many more, this 367-page tome’s main goal is to teach you to cook, not just to follow recipes.
Although the book includes a large number of very technical and complicated techniques, it should not intimidate the home cook, says Kian. “Pick and choose the techniques and recipes that are comfortable for you and learn them thoroughly. The more complicated techniques can come later. As you become a more serious and adventurous Chinese cook this book can be your guide for years to come.”
Kian was gracious enough to do a Q+A on Pickles and Tea and we’re giving away a copy of Phoenix Claws and Jade Trees to one lucky winner!
- You used to be an IT professsional. What and when was the turning point for you and why did you decide to switch careers?
Yes, I was working for banks and brokerage houses on Wall Street developing software for financial applications.
Food has always been my passion. I’d always loved to cook and one of the things I would do is to buy Chinese language cookbooks whenever I return to Asia. I would experiment with the recipes and take notes. I’ve also always been curious about asking for tips on cooking from other people. This casual research happened long before I started writing and before my blog, RedCook.net.
When I got my book contract in 2012, I stopped my IT consulting work and decided to follow my dream after 20 years working on Wall Street.
- Why and when did you start RedCook.net?
I started RedCook.net in January 2008. At the time, I was deciding what to do in the culinary world after exploring my passion for cooking by apprenticing at the Soho restaurant Canteen (now called Lure Fishbar) under Chef Josh Capone.
My neighbor, Kim Foster, suggested that I write and share my cooking experiences in a blog. I created Red Cook to share my knowledge in Chinese cooking since I had already spent a lot of time researching and cooking this food.
- In your book’s introduction, you cover China’s history and the various regional cuisines. Do you think that both are essential to learning how to cook authentic Chinese cuisine?
The culinary arts is a dynamic component of a culture. It evolves over time and is influenced by historical events and geographical confines. Therefore it is important to understand the history and regionality of any ethnic cooking be it European or Asian. I decided to include discussions on China’s history and regional variations to help the reader understand how and where the characteristics of contemporary Chinese cooking originated. Although history and regionality by themselves will not make a cook able to reproduce authentic cooking, understanding how the cuisine evolved can make a much better informed cook; hence allowing the cook to be able to develop a more authentic interpretation of the cuisine.
- I’m sure your book required in-depth research. Can you describe your process? How long did this book take to come to fruition?
I spent three years doing the research and I employed many different ways of researching for the book. The most interesting part of the research was talking to professional chefs and home cooks on how they reproduce the food they love.
Through my family and business contacts in China I was able to spend time observing and discussing the way Chinese food is made in China. These interactions gave me the opportunities to learn in-depth the techniques and cooking tips from both professional and amateur cooks.
I also visited cooking schools and interviewed some of the teaching staff to learn how techniques are taught in China. And of course I consulted many books and teaching texts on Chinese cooking to get the formal definitions and descriptions of Chinese cooking techniques.
- You traveled to China and cooked with chefs, etc. How did you find these people? What did you learn from them? Can you describe the experience cooking and learning with one of these chefs?
I was connected to chefs and cooking school professionals through family relationships and business contacts. I visited and interviewed restaurant chefs and cooking school instructors.
I learned many different things from different people. Like the time I learned about the importance of high heat and timing in making flash fried dishes from a cooking instructor at the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine. He not only described in detail the procedures of flash frying techniques but was very animated in showing me how to execute the cooking process without even being in front of a stove.
But the most memorable interview experience would have to be the night I spent observing chef Wang Zhang Hai in Xiamen. He is not only a great chef but an intellectual as well. While we discussed cooking, he would intertwine his narratives with poetry and history, making it apparent for me that Chinese cooking is not just about cooking well but a cultural pursuit as well.
- The Chinese pantry is expansive, as are the tools used in the Chinese kitchen. Not everyone has the resources or space to amass all of it. Can you name your top 5 from each category? , Most importantly, do I really need a cleaver in my kitchen?
Stocking a Chinese kitchen and pantry is really not that complicated. As far as tools are concerned the only equipment you will need is a wok with a cover, bamboo steamers, and some spatulas and spider strainers. A cleaver is very convenient to have but not always necessary. A medium-weight cutting cleaver can be used to hack soft poultry bones as well as slice delicate ingredients such as fish.
For the pantry, I would suggest including regular soy sauce, dark soy sauce, Shaoxing cooking wine, oyster sauce, Chinkiang black vinegar and sesame oil for oil and sauces. Spices including star anise, cloves, Sichuan peppercorns and dried red chilies would be essential as well.
- What are your favorite dishes in the book? Perhaps you can suggest some dishes for everyday cooking and several for dinner parties?
My favorite dish in the book would have to be red-cooked pork. It is a dish that I consider to be my family’s comfort food. Growing up in Singapore in a Fujian family, red cooked pork was served almost every other week. The tender pork belly, saturated with soy sauce, wine, spices and sugar, has to be my most memorable childhood food experience.
Other dishes I enjoy from the book include steamed striped bass, braised chicken with red wine lees and garlic stir-fried greens. For everyday cooking, any of the red cooked recipes would be very practical and they include red-cooked beef, red-cooked chicken or red-cooked fish.
For dinner parties I would suggest crispy roast duck, crisp fried red snapper with spicy sweet and sour sauce, and stir-fried pressed tofu with garlic chives blossoms.
- What was the first dish you learned to cook as a student in Boston? Any dishes from relatives you consulted from during that time in your life?
The very first dish I learned from my relatives is red-cooked chicken. Braising is a simple and very forgiving technique, which means that I can make a few small mistakes without ruining the dish. From there I moved on to stir-frying dishes such as simple stir-fried vegetables and stir-fried shrimp and scallop with peas. All these dishes were simple enough for me to learn after I received some tips from my relatives.
- If I were a total novice to Chinese cooking, where in your book should I start? Any particular dishes or techniques that would be useful to build upon?
Two groups of techniques I would recommend as starting points for Chinese cooking would be stir-frying and braising.
Start with red-cooking for braising techniques since these recipes are very forgiving. You will make slight mistakes and will learn from your experience along the way. But with braising you will not make mistakes that will render the dish inedible.
Similarly, stir-frying can be easily learned and is usually very fast to execute. Don’t be afraid of the high heat, just make sure you stir and cook continuously to prevent scorching.
- Do you eat like this all the time?
I often cook a simple two-dish Chinese meal on week nights. A braised meat dish along with a stir-fry of vegetable. Braising chicken and pork only takes about 30 minutes and with stir-frying a vegetable dish the entire meal can be done in 45 minutes. Then on weekends when I have extra time I love entertaining my friends with multi-course Chinese dinner.
Thank you Kian for a wonderful Q+A!
Kian’s publisher Clarkson Potter is kindly donating a copy of Phoenix Claws and Jade Trees to one lucky winner! To enter, please subscribe to the Pickles and Tea blog (scroll down to the very bottom!) and tell us about your favorite Chinese cooking technique in the comments section below. We’ll randomly select a winner and post the results after the deadline.
Last day to enter: Friday, December 18, 2015.
Sorry, but we can only mail to U.S. and Canadian addresses.
Disclosure: As research for this blog post, I was given a complimentary copy of Phoenix Claws and Jade Trees. However, I’m writing about it because I believe it is truly a fantastic cookbook.