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

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.

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18 Responses

  1. FABULOUS review of this book, Eva (which I had the pleasure of reviewing as well!)
    Would love for you to share it at The Book Nook at Create With Joy! 🙂

  2. Yay! I got this book too! <3 Twas an awesome one, and I'm definitely excited about using it, since I sometimes feel like I kinda fail at my own culture since I don't know how to make too many Chinese dishes.

  3. 2 weeks ago – Shared publicly

    Looks like a very interesting cook book with lots of lovely pictures. My husband is a chef, and he’s always on the lookout for new cookbooks. Thank you so much for sharing this!

  4. (Six Time Mommy)2 weeks ago – Shared publicly

    Sounds like a great book. My husband loves making different kinds of foods, I’m more of in my comfort zone type gal. I think he would love this.

  5. 2 weeks ago – Shared publicly

    This book looks amazing! I haven’t taken any college classes related to nutrition, but I have definitely been down that dangerous road of where my food comes from etc. etc. etc. It definitely makes finding food to eat more difficult, and my favorites definitely got the ax. I have found that I can re-create a lot of my favorite meals from out in restaurants, and now that I mainly cook from scratch, I realize that I prefer my ways of cooking rather than restaurants. Chinese is something that I have never tried, but would absolutely love to! That chinese buffet always called to me when I was younger :-)

  6. 2 weeks ago – Shared publicly

    Such a beautiful cook book! I absolutely love food pics and trying new recipes!!

  7. 1 week ago – Shared publicly

    I love Chinese food. It is actually my favorite. I love wonton soup. I worry about preservitaves and we try to eat less fast food. My kids actually hate fast food which amazes me because as a kid I loved it. I am for eating healthy and clean. It seems that our food is getting worse. However, I listened to a program with my husband a few years back that explained that people who live long were not vegans or vegetarians but we’re people who ate everything in moderation. I have a dear friend who is 99 years old and she still walks and lives on her own. She eats potatoes that come out of a box. I believe that God has a time set for everyone…however we are supposed to take care of our body and what we eat is pretty important.. You inspire me to eat healthier. It is never too late to learn. Thanks for sharing this amazing book….I will look into it. 
    Show less

  8. 2 weeks ago – Shared publicly

    I like that it shares tips on herbs. And I love stir fry. This book is what I need 

  9. 2 weeks ago – Shared privately

    This looks like a wonderful cookbook. We like Chinese food, but never can find decent carry out. I never thought about making it at home because I thought I wouldn’t be able to find the ingredients. Looks like they are readily available at the local grocery stores. I’m going to have to check out some new recipes!

  10. 2 weeks ago – Shared publicly

    Wow! This book sounds amazing! I love learning how to make food authentically!

  11. 1 week ago – Shared publicly

    I have a wok, and have sadly only used it, like 2 ½ times. Every time I try to make a recipe, it never comes out how I imagine or what the picture looks like. I love the photos of this book – very appetizing!

  12. 2 weeks ago – Shared publicly

    I’m also so scared of MSG and it prevents me from getting takeout. I found a place near me that’s MSG free and I love it!

    · Reply

    Kid Minds 2 weeks ago

    That is so nice. I love cooking from scratch, but some days life is so hectic I wish I could just order something. I haven’t found anything near me yet, so on busy days I end up boiling some gluten free pasta and we eat it with butter. 

  13. 2 weeks ago – Shared publicly

    What an exciting recipe book I like that it is so different and really explains all the herbs needed and the context behind them. The photography is phenomenal too.

    · Reply

    Kid Minds 2 weeks ago

    Thanks for checking it out!

  14. 2 weeks ago – Shared publicly

    I absolutely love cookbooks – I would spend every Sunday afternoon reading them if my littles would let me. I was also surprised when I started to find healthy Chinese options because I was always of the understanding that they were loaded with salt and preservatives. This cook looks beautiful I really need to check it out.

    · Reply

    Kid Minds 2 weeks ago

    I’m the same way. I love cookbooks!
    I love reading cookbooks like novels from cover to cover and I would gladly spend my Sunday morning reading a cookbook!

  15. 2 days ago – Shared publicly

    Great review. I loved the useful links too. You should mark this review with a warning: don’t read if you are hungry,. LOL Thanks for linking up with us at Literacy Musing Mondays. ;)

  16. -Buckert2 weeks ago – Shared publicly

    Sounds like a wonderful book. My teenager is really getting into cooking. This week she picked out a beef stir fry to make. 

    · Reply

    Kid Minds2 weeks ago

    Oh this is wonderful. My kids love cooking but they are too little to do most of it on their own. 

  17. 2 weeks ago – Shared publicly

    I need to check out this cookbook. I love Chinese food but can never get it right at home.

    · Reply

    Kid Minds2 weeks ago

    I used to think it was impossible to cook Chinese food at home but once your learn a couple of tricks like “velveting” it seems so simple!

  18. 2 weeks ago – Shared publicly

    That sounds like a great book! The only thing I was really opposed to eating out of all of the revelations of Culinary school (including Safety and Sanitation, we lost a good third of our students to that) was swordfish.

    And if you need a way to use up a chunk of that tapioca starch, I can send you my recipe for Pao de Quiejo (Brazilian Cheese Buns). So good!

    · Reply Kid Minds 2 weeks ago

    I read once that swordfish has the highest concentration of mercury among fish (plus they are over-fished), so we avoid it.
    I would love your recipe for cheese buns! We can never have enough buns in our house. My email eva at kidminds dot org 

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