Renowned Chinese-American chef on food, books and cooking
April may be the cruellest month, but March will be the kindest to bookworms thanks to the annual Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. This year the event runs from Tuesday March 5 until Saturday 9: alongside novelists and journalists, the event also welcomes a feast of cooking writers and TV favourites from around the world. Experts including Rachel Allen, Anissa Helou, Antonio Carluccio and Pierre Gagnaire will be on hand to discuss their latest projects and perform culinary demonstrations.
One of the top names from the food-heavy line-up is Ken Hom, a Cantonese Chicago-born chef. Having worked in food for 52 years (he first picked up a spatula at the tender age of 11), his CV now boasts 30 years’ worth of TV appearances and 20 cookery books. Focusing primarily on Chinese cooking, as well as other oriental cuisines, Ken has now become an internationally respected expert on this culinary genre. In fact, when we spoke to him from London, he was just returning from Rio de Janeiro where he’d been acting as food consultant for a new restaurant, due to open later this year.
Having visited Dubai several times in the past, performing cooking demonstrations at venues such as the Burj Al Arab and Jumeirah Beach Hotel, Ken returns to Dubai for the first time in five years to appear at the litfest. ‘Dubai is an exciting place, especially for chefs’, he says.
‘The closest comparison I could make is Singapore: a place that is clean and well run, with a thriving food culture run by chefs from around the world, with a sophisticated audience of diners that appreciate it.’ Describing himself as an ‘ambassador and teacher of Chinese cooking and culture’, Ken attributes his long-term success and respect in this field to his teaching style. ‘I want to show viewers and readers how easy it is, that Chinese cooking is within their capabilities and can be adopted into their daily lives,’ he explains.
Like fellow best-selling food authors Delia Smith and Madhur Jaffrey, he explains, he has concentrated on creating recipes that will work in a home kitchen, and teaching them in a clear, easy-to-follow method. ‘A reader can start from scratch and go on to be a great cook, because it’s as if I’m standing next to them,’ he asserts.
At the literature festival, Ken will be demonstrating how to prepare key Chinese dishes. Although he refrains from revealing what those dishes will be, he jokes that there isn’t much practice required. ‘I can do it blindfolded!’ he laughs.
He’ll also be discussing his latest book, Exploring China: A Culinary Adventure, the result of four months of research and two months touring the country for a BBC TV series with fellow Chinese chef Ching He Huang. Ken dubs the process ‘incredibly intensive’, saying the trip ‘almost killed’ him.
‘The BBC approached me to team up with this up-and-coming young woman. It had been 25 years since I was last in China, and the changes were profound. It was like being in the UK at the end of the ’40s [after the Second World War], then returning in the ’70s or ’80s.’ In the case of China, Ken points out, this drastic change had been contracted into a 25-year period and it was like experiencing ‘two different worlds’.
Ken and Ching started their tour of this vast region in Beijing. They moved on to Sichuan ‘in the deep heart and interior of the country’, before visiting Kaskar in the far northwestern province of Xinjiang, described by Ken as ‘an exotic country that almost had nothing to do with China – the people looked more Turkish than typically Chinese’. The trip also took in tropical Yunnan in the far south-west; Guangzhou, ‘the old Canton and capital of the Cantonese region’; and finally Hong Kong.
Ken was pleased to find that the nation had returned to its former self. ‘Three decades ago, I felt China had lost its soul. The food was disappointing, primarily because people didn’t have access to good ingredients,’ he explains. There was also, he adds, a sense that the people he encountered ‘didn’t care much about anything. This extended to the food, which was cooked and served with lack of care.’ The economic reforms in the country have changed everything, he argues, creating a dining culture that is increasingly more like that in Hong Kong – ‘where people have money to spend and the customer comes first’.
Also changing the dining scene in cities such as Beijing are improved infrastructure, making movement possible, and the influx of migrant workers from different provinces, bringing with them their own vastly different regional cuisines. Now, Ken explains, the fashionable food in Beijing is fiery Szechuan cooking, using a variety of the region’s native peppercorns, and Muslim restaurants that cook the lamb- and potato-heavy dishes of the north-west.
In Beijing, thanks in part to the international influences of world-renowned chefs such as Daniel Boulud setting up shop (Beijing has its own STAY by Yannick Alléno), there is also a growing breed of young, Michelin-level chefs. They are, Ken comments, working on a style of Chinese cooking that is still primarily traditional, but becoming more refined and sophisticated. Yet creative foreign influences are beginning to creep in, with examples such as Beijing chef Da Dong’s classic Shanghai soup dumplings, made with a truffle-flavoured broth. When we ask Ken if these young chefs will be changing the face of the next generation of restaurants, he reflects: ‘It’s happening now.’ Ken Hom appears at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature on Friday March 8 at 4pm, and Saturday March 9 at 11.30am. Tickets Dhs60. www.emirateslitfest.com.