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  1. Wealth
September 14, 2012

Ken Hom On Chinese Haute Cuisine And How Food Fights Racism

By Spear's

Famous since his 1984 TV series introduced real Chinese cookery to Britain, Ken Hom has seen Chinese cuisine in Britain move from chop suey to China Tang. He talks to Josh Spero as he cooks a banquet at the Blenheim Palace Literary Festival

Famous since his 1984 TV series introduced real Chinese cookery to Britain, Ken Hom has seen Chinese cuisine in Britain move from chop suey to China Tang. He talks to Josh Spero as he cooks a banquet at the Blenheim Palace Literary Festival
JUST AS WE start to talk, Ken Hom gets up and runs into the kitchen. ‘I’ve got to turn something down!’ He is cooking a banquet on the second night of the Blenheim Palace Literary Festival at the Feathers hotel in Woodstock, a short walk from the Palace, for bookish and gastronomic guests, and something is at risk of burning or boiling.

Hom, 63, who was brought up in Chicago and started cooking in his uncle’s restaurant aged eleven, made his name after Madhur Jaffrey recommended him to the BBC for Britain’s first show on Chinese cookery. When we talk about this series and how food can be a force for integration, he reveals a surprising facet to the show: it was commissioned by the BBC’s Department of Continuing Education. ‘Their idea was that if people learnt about a group of people through their food, then they’re less likely to be discriminating against them, and I think that’s true.’ In fact, Hom would like to do a series on how food and immigration have fed off one another and changed society.

Britain has been much better at absorbing the communities who brought Chinese food here than his homeland, Hom says: ‘America is more a country of communities, in other words Chinese stay with Chinese, Indians stay with Indians. You have all these pockets of communities rather than the mixing that you have here. I know this country well enough I can say that with real… sincerity. There’s much more of a mixture here. Like Keith Vaz said, it’s incredible how minority groups have integrated very well into British life and how they’ve been accepted. I believe in what he believes in: immigration enriches everybody’s lives.’ Quoting Keith Vaz sets a new bar for Anglophilia.

The poor state of Anglo-Chinese cookery when Ken Hom’s Chinese Cookery aired in 1984 was at least an improvement on his first visit in 1971: ‘I was pretty shocked because I had come from outside San Francisco where actually we had fairly decent Chinese food. They would serve fish and chips with Chinese takeaway!’ I remember stories of my father taking my grandfather to a Chinese restaurant and my grandfather ordering an omelette. Faux-Chinese dishes like chop suey and fried ‘seaweed’ (in reality, cheap cabbage) added to the horror.

But even with a little improvement over a decade, the series was a revelation. As Caitlin Moran wrote recently, when reviewing Gok Wan’s new Chinese cookery show, ‘Like monkeys blinking at a space-station, we watched Hom prepare meals of dazzling spice — almost unable to comprehend how amazing that stuff must taste.’

And now? ‘Now I reckon this country has the best Chinese food in Europe for sure. When I come often to the UK, the first thing I eat is Chinese food here, which is funny because you can’t get good Chinese food in Paris.’ Shanghai Blues in Holborn, the Good Earth in Knightsbridge, China Tang (‘Chinese food at Dorchester prices’) are favourites; Royal China in Bayswater for a less expensive meal.
CHINESE FOOD HAS suffered from somewhat of an image problem in the UK, even if it is now edible and vaguely recognisable to a Chinese person as something on the spectrum of their own cuisine. With the exception of the very few high-end restaurants Hom mentions, it’s widely perceived as a demotic cuisine. Few people would think of Chinese food with the same anticipatory snobbery that they would French food. But that’s not necessarily bad: ‘Now the French have a big problem: in a time of economic crisis people don’t go to a French restaurant because it’s perceived as being expensive. We have the opposite problem: our food was perceived as cheap food.’ Most people haven’t seen refined, subtle and diverse Chinese food, unless they’ve lived in Hong Kong, he says. Hom himself is still learning about the diversity of Chinese food on his travels.

One of Hom’s first jobs after studying History of Art at university (which taught him about the importance of social context for both art and food) was teaching Italian cookery, which he had picked up in Europe in the early Seventies. There are more similarities, he says, than you might at first think: ‘I love Italian cooking because I think it’s very close to Cantonese cooking. It’s a lot of pasta, noodles, their food is relatively light, it’s very fresh; it appeals to me very much because there’s very little cream – it’s mostly olive oil, not butter.’

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Anglophilia aside, Hom lives between France and Thailand, although he recently sold his 14th-century converted tower in the Lot, consigned his cellar to Christie’s and gave his cookery-book library to Oxford Brookes. He won’t live in China, though, because ‘it’s for the young, for the ambitious.’ In Thailand ‘they’re not rushing around all the time trying to make money.’

Despite this, he does strongly identify with China, partly as a result of growing up in a closed Chinese community and partly because of his ethnic cohort pulling together after discrimination at a mainstream school in Chicago. ‘There’s a very famous thing, it’s called “Ching chong Chinaman, sitting on a fence, trying to make a dollar out of fifteen cents.”’ But the laugh’s on them: ‘Guess what – we are making a dollar out of fifteen cents now!’ And with China’s growing wealth and expanding involvement in other countries comes the spread of Chinese food; he looks forward to Africa experiencing Chinese food courtesy of its guest workers.

At the very other end of the scale, haute cuisine within China is becoming something to look out for: ‘Being in China I see the rise of top chefs who are equal to any Michelin-starred chef in the world – they’re very sophisticated, they do Chinese food on a level that’s really the top.’ Molecular-style food? ‘Not much. I hate that kind of food because it’s not real food to me. They’re refining its cuisine with a new modern look.

‘I saw chefs that not only did beautiful presentation but they’ve taken things and refined them with an idea of getting the essence of flavour. There was this guy in Chengdu who made this – it looked like a paintbrush for calligraphy, but it was pastry. It was absolutely delicious. People are thinking but within our context.’ That chef, Yu Bo, is looking to open a restaurant abroad now.

The food I am about to enjoy as I write this is his ‘homage to Madhur Jaffrey’: spring rolls (but Vietnamese style, so fresh and not oily and heavy), proper hot and sour soup, steamed fish (which the British never do despite our ‘most beautiful fish’) and pork belly (‘I know that people in this country love pork belly, but nobody does it like we do’).

This is a chance for Hom to open the door of haute Chinese cuisine, which Britons are unaccustomed or disinclined to. He recalls a restaurant he opened in 1992, called Imperial City, where the dishes were authentically Chinese; the critics raved. ‘And guess what most people ordered? Sweet and sour pork!’ There is some victory for Hom in that even if you do order that today in your local Chinese restaurant, it will be a world away from the chop suey and fried cabbage of Hom’s first sojourn in England.
Watch an extract from Ken Hom’s Chinese Cookery on how to make sweet and sour pork

Visit the Blenheim Palace Literary Festival website

Read more from Food Friday

Read more interviews with chefs

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