Q&A: Ching-He Huang on her new show, Ken Hom's influence and her favourite London dim sum joints
In new show Ching's Amazing Asia, Ching-He Huang shows us inside some of East Asia's best kitchens. We talk to her about her food journey, from Taiwan to South Africa, London and beyond
What are you bringing to the table with Amazing Asia that you haven't done before?
It's called Ching's Amazing Asia, and it's not an ordinary cooking show, so I'm not in a studio kitchen at all and I don't really cook at all – in fact I'm a sous chef to some of the most amazing chefs in Asia – so it's really about them, and basically I open the kitchen doors, as it were, and I cook with them, cook their signature dishes, and reveal their chef's secrets to the amazing diversity of their cuisine.
We tend to know a little less about some of the higher-profile chefs in East Asia than the Europe and the US – why is that?
Sometimes, in Asia, the language barrier's tricky, and the chefs can be quite closed, so I wanted to celebrate them, really, and I wanted people to fall in love with their food, their characters, their restaurants, and their dishes, first and foremost. And some of these chefs haven't had media training, but they're just really, really good at what they do. So I wanted to be able to take people right into a Chinese kitchen, because I got so inspired after Exploring China with Ken [Hom], and I thought that these guys were full of character and personality, and I wanted to bring a sense of that. It was tricky, because some of them didn't speak English at all, so I had to be the go-between, but I think it works and I hope it comes through.
So is this more about restaurant kitchens than market stalls?
We do stalls, too – in Taiwan, for example, a lot of the setup is almost like street food, because stores are just off the street, and that's how they sell it, so it's like an open kitchen looking onto the street. But then in Hong Kong and Macau, there's diversity: cafes, very very fine-dining restaurants – we go into three-Michelin-starred kitchens in Macau – so it's a real mix of high-end and mass-market food and street food.
When you're putting together a show like this, is there a different approach to account for a more educated viewer than, say, a decade ago?
I've been doing this for ten years now, and when I first started, it was quite difficult – people had an idea of East Asian cooking, especially Chinese food – but it has evolved. In the beginning I was still breaking down recipes a lot, to try and teach people, and compartmentalising them – these are your sauces; these are your noodles; this is your store-cupboard.
In the beginning I was still breaking down recipes a lot; now it's evolved
Now, I'm finding my journey has evolved: I'm more into health and well-being, ethical and sustainable food, so I'm trying to marry that with still making gourmet food. Still simple techniques, and still full of nutrition – in fact nutrition, and the quality of ingredients, is at the forefront of my mind – so that simplicity, but also gourmet. I've tried to create even more short cuts, even easier techniques, and trying to break it down to even simpler, to achieve the same goal that you did in half the time. Because, like with technology, life is just whizzing by, and we have to catch up, and I think people want to spend less time in the kitchen. But they want the results; they want good food, and they want the taste, but without putting the hard work in. So I think my food has evolved to try and meet that demand even more, but with even more respect for the environment, and for animals, and sustainability. But people are getting more and more educated – it's crazy how things have evolved in the last five years. Everybody's blogging, and everyone has a different opinion, and it's so great to see so many other different cuisines coming in, and niche cuisines, too – so that's fantastic.
Do you find you teach people more regionally – so 'Szechuan' instead of 'Chinese'?
No. I mean I love Szechuan food and I love Chinese food, but for me it's a fusion of everything. If a dish I taste on my travels is delicious, I'll replicate it in my own way, so it's whatever Asian dish I find, basically. It's what this show's also about – it's to celebrate the innovation and diversity of Asian food, because I find that people still don't know how unbelievable it is, and how many thousands more dishes there are yet to be discovered in this conversation. We've only just scratched the surface, and the only way I can do that is by taking people, literally, into the kitchen and showing them what's possible. Some people might go 'Oh yeah, I've had that before.' or 'Yeah, I know how to do that,' but they might not know the techniques and some of the chefs' secrets.
You've worked with Ken Hom before – did he have any input into this, and how much have you learned from him in terms of putting a travel/food show together?
No, this is my own passion project, which I've wanted to do for a while. But I love Ken – he's my sifu [teacher]. He's really gracious, he's warm, he's got lots of zen energy, and he's got a wicked sense of humour – he's like a cheeky dad. My dad's also really jealous, because I'm almost more fond of him than my own dad! I grew up watching him, so he's always been an influence of mine and an idol, and I had the pleasure of working with him yonks back, just at the beginning of my career. And then we were united for Exploring China, and that's when I really got to know him, and I just don't see enough of him, because he's busy trotting around the world.
The thing that I've learned most from him is classical techniques, his approach to teaching, and he's just so giving, and so calm. Nothing phases him. He's been doing this for 30 years. I love his simplistic approach, which I also have in my cooking. I love to exchange ideas and talk with him, and just to watch him cook – it's always such a pleasure to me.
Are there any other chefs who've influenced you?
My mum and my grandmother have been my greatest influences, in all my career. My husband, as well, because he's vegetarian, so with meals at home I try to make sure that they're balanced and healthy, and that he'll eat them. I love Nigella, I love Mary Berry, I loved Delia when I was growing up – I've got all their cookbooks. I love Western cookery. I love Ina Garton, too – she's a goddess to me.
You were born in Taiwan, and you've spent time in South Africa before living in London. How do you balance those influences?
I think things that being in those countries taught me, I really learned through my mum. When we were living in South Africa she had to make do with the ingredients she had, and make authentic and delicious food for us at home. Everything was substitute – and as a result, she's very good at experimenting, and I think I've got that from her. So I naturally love to experiment with different ingredients to make up the original flavour of Chinese cooking. So that's what I find really interesting, and I think that's what I got from living in South Africa. And then in London, at that period in my and my family's life, my mum was travelling a lot with work, so she had to teach me dishes that were quick and easy at home, and how to use leftovers – everything was short of time, on a budget, delicious and nutritious. So I think that's where I got all my training from, by learning from her.
Where do you like to eat in London? Are there any restaurants or chefs you really admire at the moment?
I cannot not have dim sum; so once a month at least I have to have my dim sum fix. I go to several places for that: my absolute favourite has to be Royal China, just because it's always spot on, and they always bring out something special, or something unusual on their menu. I love Dumpling Legends, especially their xiaolongbao [steamed buns] – I find them particularly juicy. I love fusion cuisine, and Japanese cuisine in particular, and I love the guys at Chotto Matte. I'm a big fan of Jordan Sclare, and their flavours – I love zinginess and freshness, and the fusion of it. They do some fantastic vegetarian dishes, too, so my husband's a fan.
I love sweet, garlicky, punchy, strongly-flavoured dishes
Is there a dish that you cook that's emblematic of your approach to food?
I'd say my Szechuan chicken and guo bao rice. I cooked this dish for James Martin on Saturday Kitchen at the end of last year. I love guo bao, which is basically pan-fried rice, so it goes slightly crispy and sticky at the bottom, and then I make this Szechuan sauce with courgette, and cucumber. But I love sweet, garlicky, punchy, strongly flavoured dishes.
Which ingredients are your essentials?
In the store cupboard, I'd have all the essentials I say to all my students, which are the classics: Chinese five spice, light soy sauce, toasted sesame oil, and all of that. But outside of that, I love pungent, aromatic, strong flavours, so things like pickled turnip, soy picked cucumber stems, stem lettuce, which is fantastic, and really salty. I love kimchi, and I make a Chinese salsa verde which is full of ginger and spring onions and chillis, which I make fresh every week to go on steamed fish, stir-fried chicken or meat, or anything. My mum's pickled bamboo shoots all the way from Kaohsiung are always in my fridge, because my grandmother still has the farm, so my grandfather still pickles his bamboo shoots, and we get a bag every year that keeps for the whole year. We chop it up and do omelettes with it, and it's fantastic in stir-fried rice to give it a bit of edge and crunch. Shaoxing rice wine I must have; a little bit of sake brings out flavour in dishes, too.
Ching's Amazing Asia premieres 8th February at 9pm on Food Network Freeview 41, Sky 248, freesat 149, Virgin 291.