Kian Lam Kho, author of the book Phoenix Claws and Jade Trees and the blog Red Cook, explains different techniques used to cook Chinese food. He also shares his recipe for Red-cooked Pork (pictured above).
Melissa Clark: I love your book, and I love the way it's organized. You organize it by cooking method rather than by ingredient. What made you decide to organize your book that way?
Kian Lam Kho: The reason I decided to do that is because I really feel Chinese food has been misunderstood. I feel that organizing it by techniques will give people a full, broad range of ideas of exactly what kind of cooking methods and how to utilize the different heat sources to actually prepare Chinese food. Most of these techniques, even though they are closely related to a Western technique, are really quite different.
MC: I think most Americans know the technique as stir-frying. They think Chinese food, and that's what they think. In your book you have some critiques of the way we've been doing our stir-fries.
KLK: It's not really a critique but just the explanation of how the Chinese actually have variations of stir-frying.
One of them is dry stir-fry, which really means that you only add a little bit of the sauce. The end result is the sauce just cooks the ingredients, and there's no gravy with it.
Moist stir-fry, on the other hand, is when you add extra stock or extra liquid. In the end, you actually have a sauce, a gravy, that is accompanying the final dish.
There's a third technique that's called simple stir-fry. That one, very often, is reserved for leafy vegetables. Leafy vegetables, when you cook them, bleed a lot of liquid. You don't want to add additional protein or additional ingredients because then they will be just sitting in a pool of liquid that's basically tasteless. Often when we do the other kind of stir-fry, we don't use leafy vegetables.
MC: So leafy vegetable stir-fry is its own special category?
MC: What about red cooking? You've named your website after red cooking. I know that's a very important and iconic style of cooking.
KLK: Red cooking is the most common braising technique that is used in Chinese cooking. In fact, when I was growing up, we ate red-cooked pork every other week.
There are just so many different kinds of red cooking. You can red cook lamb, you can red cook chicken, fish, beef. There are just endless varieties.
It's actually a very simple technique. The basic ingredients are sugar, soy sauce and wine. Then you add in aromatics, and you add in a little bit of extra spices depending on the ingredients you're cooking with. It's a very flexible and very simple technique. We basically red cook everything.
MC: Because it's so good.
KLK: It is so good.
MC: What about browning? I think that you say in the book that you do brown sometimes, but not always with braising. In the U.S. we think of the braise as a very traditional French dish where you brown it first, then add liquid. But it's different.
KLK: That is very different in Chinese technique. In almost all of the braising and stewing dishes in Chinese cooking, we parboil the protein instead of browning the protein. We parboil in plain water, we scoop off all the scum or residue that floats to the top and very often we discard the parboiling liquid before we even start braising it. The result is that you end up with this braise that has a beautiful, clean, velvety sauce with no impurities in it, with no scum or anything. That's the reason why we actually parboil our protein.
MC: What about steam braising? That's yet another type of Chinese braising that you write about.
KLK: Steam braising is actually a very interesting technique because what you do is you actually put all the ingredients into a covered clay pot. Then put the clay pot in a much larger pot that has a little bit of water in the bottom. Start steaming it. You just keep steaming it for hours. Basically, you're braising the meat at 212 degrees Fahrenheit, so it's a constant boiling temperature. The end result is just amazing because it really infuses the flavor and at the same time also tenderizes the meat.
One of the advantages of this technique is that if you include herbal medicine --for example, pseudoginseng, sometimes goji berries, all the common herbal ingredients -- as you very slowly steam the braise itself, the compounds from those herbal ingredients actually slowly infuse into the stock.
MC: It's a combination of traditional Chinese medicine and traditional Chinese cooking. Then that dish is served to someone as a curative as well.
KLK: That's correct.
MC: What about smoking?
KLK: The traditional way of smoking is to actually allow the smoke coming out from a wood-burning stove through an exhaust at the back of the stove. You put a meat right behind it. But obviously nowadays we don't have that kind of stove anymore.
But it's possible to smoke now in a wok. You can line the wok with some foil. Throw in some tea, some camphorwood, sometimes even orange peel, dry tangerine peel and fruits and just let it smoke. You can smoke fish, you can smoke duck, you can smoke chicken. There are all kinds of different ways of smoking. It's a very interesting way of infusing flavors into the meat.
MC: This is like a hot smoking, so you're cooking it at the same time that you're infusing the smoke flavor into it.
KLK: That is correct. The Chinese smoking technique is hot smoking, so you are basically cooking the meat as you smoke.
Melissa Clark is a food writer and author. She is a food columnist for The New York Times, and has written for Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, Every Day with Rachael Ray and Martha Stewart. She is the author of Dinner in an Instant, Cook This Now, In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite and 32 other cookbooks.