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Ken Horn is one of the world’s greatest Chinese chefs. [The philosophy behind his success is based on fusing Eastern principles of cooking together with a European style."He talks to Hannah Robinson about his ﬁrst love — good food, and his second — good
Before Ken Hom chose cooking as his career. he was going to be a ﬁlmmaker. He studied ﬁlm in France, with a view to producing either ﬁlm or television. But in order to earn a little extra money, he would run cookery classes, which became renowned until eventually he was invited by the BBC to do a Chinese cookery series.
He has of course, seen all the food movies there are to see —Babette ’s Feast. Tampopo. Like Water for Chocolate. La Grande Boujfe. The Cook. The Thief. . .etc. What is the vital ingredient that links the two seemingly disparate activities of cooking and ﬁlmmaking? ‘I think both are about trying to express yourself through a medium . . . you can transport someone to another culture when they see a Chinese ﬁlm or eat a
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'; Chinese meal — they are both ways of ; getting people together.‘ His favourite celluloid feast is [Eat Drink. Man.
Woman by the Taiwanese director Ang
Lee, whose ﬁrst ﬁlm The Wedding Banquet was the international anhouse hit of 1993. In Lee‘s new ﬁlm. the it cooking and eating of food becomes a metaphor for love. sex and relationships. ‘I loved the ﬁlm because ? it reminded me so much of my ; childhood. My mother would show me she loved me by taking the best part of the ﬁsh, the cheek meat, and put it in my bowl. That's how I knew that she ' loved me without telling me with . words.‘
He grew up in Chicago and worked . from the age ofeleven in his uncle’s L Chinese restaurant. It was there that he _ developed his love of Chinese cookery. ‘When I feel down I go and eat something Chinese that reminds me of home and it makes me feel much better'. Which dishes are they? ‘Very simple dishes with lots of plain rice. You know how some people just like to chew on bread — I like to chew on i boiled rice. I could eat a mountain of bok choy, stir fried with garlic with rice, or a bowl of rice with fermented bean curd.’ He maintains that good food is always healthy. I wondered how that ﬁtted in with America’s present obsession with fat-free food. ‘I hate all that diet stuff— in America there have been cases where people are eating such low fat food that they’re actually suffering nutritional deﬁciency.‘
To help us learn more about Chinese food, Ken Hom has just produced a new book Ken Hmn It Chinese Kitchen. You might think that he had exhausted the Chinese cookery book market, but, say his publishers, Ken regards this on:
as the deﬁnitive Chinese cookery book. i
And as a matter of fact, he‘s right. 1 have four of Ken’s books. I bought his ﬁrst, the one that accompanied his BBC series, when l was fourteen. Up until then, I only knew the classic European cookery of Elizabeth David. Delia Smith and Constance Spry. I studied the book long and hard and consequently, my fatnin found themselves swimming in Chinese food and my beloved cookery book, splattered with ingredients. But after a while, I exhausted all his recipes and my own variations. Every other recipe book I have found since, covers the same basics and have never allowed me to expand my knowledge.
This is where Ken Hom‘s new book succeeds. Split into two sections, the ﬁrst half is an A-Z of Chinese ingredients. with a whole page dedicated to each item. Not only does he explain what the ingredient is, where to buy it and how to use it, he also recommends the best brands to buy. So now I know which is the best ﬁsh sauce brand and what to look for in a fermented bean curd and can improve those recipes which I have worn out.
lovingly prepared: Like Water for Chocolate
Home cooking Horn-ston
There are colour pictures of the packaged products for those of us who can’t read the Chinese. And ifthe supermarket doesn't have exactly that brand, Ken will recommend the regions which make the best varieties. so that all you need look for is Hong Kong or Thailand on the label. He is not biased to any particular brand. as different manufacturers excel in different products.
The second half of the book is a collection of recipes which range from the simple to the complex (Jellyﬁsh ditn sum and Peking pressed Chicken). 1 was excited to ﬁnd a recipe for crispy seaweed in there, as various attempts to replicate that Chinese restaurant classic had always ended for me in a soggy. oily heap of shredded greens. The secret is to dry out the shredded bok choy in the oven ﬁrst and then quickly deep fry it.
So what will the expert Chinese chief have for his Christmas dinner"? ‘I spent last Christmas in Hong Kong and we ate Hong Kong style, but this year I will be in France. We will probably have veal or chicken. Chicken in France is great. Cooked simply — but with impeccable ingredients including truffles. The best way to cook chicken is a Chinese steeping technique. You simmer it for ﬁfteen minutes, take it off the heat and then leave it covered for two hours so that it cooks really slowly. The bones are still red but the ﬂesh is thoroughly cooked and has a lovely, silky, velvety, moist texture.‘
Wherever he plans to spend his festivities, one thing is very apparent. As long as Ken Hom is with friends and eating good food. he will be a very happytnan.
Ken Horn '3 Chinese Kitchen is published by Pavilion Books priced £17.99.
94 The List 2-15 December 1994