Getting into the science of Chinese cooking

Kho Kian Lam travelled to China seven times to research his debut cookbook.
Kho Kian Lam travelled to China seven times to research his debut cookbook.ST PHOTO: YEO KAI WEN

Think whipping up stir-fried Chinese dishes involves tossing ingredients simply into a wok? According to cookbook author Kho Kian Lam, a precise order of cooking is required to cook the meats and vegetables evenly.

Remove the meats from the wok after they are three-quarters cooked. Throw in garlic or ginger before frying the vegetables, and then return the meat to the wok.

This is one of the cooking techniques of Chinese cuisine detailed in Kho's debut cookbook, Phoenix Claws And Jade Trees. The 158 recipes are organised according to 12 commonly used techniques, ranging from steaming, braising, stir-frying to roasting.

The Singapore-born chef, culinary instructor and restaurant consultant, who is based in New York, was in town last month to launch his cookbook. The recipes are from his Hokkien family and friends, and developed from traditional recipes.

Kho teaches Chinese cooking at the Institute of Culinary Education and The Brooklyn Kitchen, both in New York. He was consultant-chef for Lotus Blue, New York's first restaurant that specialised in Yunnan cuisine when it opened in 2012.

He hopes to demystify Chinese cooking among home cooks by focusing on basic cooking techniques and explaining the science and history behind them.

The 60-year-old says: "By having a good understanding of the cooking processes, they can master and re-create these dishes by adjusting cooking steps and ingredients to suit different cooking conditions, and not follow recipes blindly."

The recipes range from pork shank soup with winter bamboo and Peking duck to Chinese-American dishes such as General Tso's Chicken (sweet and spicy deep- fried chicken).

Published by lifestyle group Clarkson Potter, Phoenix Claws And Jade Trees alludes to poetic metaphorical names of chicken feet and kailan, which appear in menus of Chinese restaurants.

The book has an almost scientific approach to Chinese cooking, peppered with procedures and figures on cooking temperatures and timings.

On one of the dishes from his childhood, braised pork belly, Kho notes that parboiling before braising is often overlooked. He says: "Parboiling seals the meat's juices and removes the impurities from the curdling proteins, and produces a nice and clear gravy."

Besides recipes from 13 regional cuisines from all over China, from Guangdong to Anhui, the 368-page cookbook also has an informative section on how historical events influenced the different cuisines. As part of his research, Kho travelled to China seven times over the past 31/2 years to interview chefs, culinary scholars and cooking instructors.

He says: "To get a holistic understanding of cooking, one needs to know the stories behind the food, which is always evolving with cultural influences."

The youngest of three siblings, he did not know how to cook while growing up as his family's domestic helpers did the cooking. His mother died when he was four years old and his businessman father died in 1985 at the age of 64.

He started cooking only at 17, while studying aerospace engineering at Boston University. He says it was the "terrible and tasteless Chinese food" in the United States in the late 1970s that drove him into the kitchen. Feeling homesick, he wrote to his aunts for recipes such as braised pork belly, steamed Malay cake and stir-fried dishes. Soon, he started bringing ingredients from home such as dried tangerine peel and jujubes, and progressed to cooking more complex dishes.

Having lived in the United States for more than three decades, he notes that chop suey (a stir-fried dish with vegetables, meats and eggs) and other Chinese-American staples such as General Tso's Chicken, and beef and broccoli, are not inferior to Chinese cuisine.

Mr Kho, whose partner is a retired primary school teacher, says: "Chop suey is another form of Chinese cooking that has adapted to local tastebuds. It should be treasured as part of an immigrant culture, just like how Peranakan food is loved in Singapore."

•Phoenix Claws And Jade Trees is available at major bookstores at $61.95 .

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 02, 2015, with the headline 'Getting into the science of Chinese cooking'. Print Edition | Subscribe