A visit last year to Britain and an evening spent with great chefs was a welcome break from the turmoil of the US election. But everything is connected, and my conversation with Ken Hom about his autobiography was as much about the American immigrant dream and the benefits of globalization as it was about Chinese food.
Ken, a celebrity chef with myriad demands on his time, never seems hurried. Although his escort told me sternly that I had only one hour, Ken settled into his seat by the window of the Oxford Brookes University restaurant without conveying the least sense of haste. He was wearing a long Chinese gown in a dignified brown, ready for the evening’s lecture and dinner at which he would be the host. He ordered tea and urged me to try the coffee, and our conversation picked up from where we’d left off in Paris six months earlier.
What amazing luck for me that he had been there, since his home these days is Thailand. Or Brazil. Or somewhere in rural France. We’d corresponded, just a little, about the Encyclopedia of Chinese Cuisines, and in those brief exchanges I’d got a sense of warmth and support for any good work, his generosity of spirit.
We had arranged that I would come to the hotel where he swims. It was a glorious April day and the hotel was decked, garlanded and festooned, outside as well as inside, with branches of cherry blossom. Ken walked into the lobby as I gazed at the flowers, wondering what it must cost to maintain a display like that, and gestured to an open courtyard.
The waiter brought a menu. As I glanced down it, I asked, “What kind of tea does one drink in France?” A English cuppa just didn’t fit the bill. A tisane?
“For myself,” said Ken, “I prefer a nice Sancerre.”
So we sat in the tender afternoon sunlight, sipping the kind of crisp cool wine that I could imagine the detective Maigret drinking on the first warm day of spring, talking about how important it is to help people learn about China. About Chinese food, and the cuisines of China, of course, but it was clear that our desire to expand people’s palates was also a desire to expand their minds, and their horizons.
Now we were meeting in England, the country both of us had moved to from California in the 1980s. Outside, yellow-gray leaves from the plane trees wafted to the pavement as students hurried past the construction caravans that dotted the campus. It was a bustling, practical place, and Ken had become a supporter of the hospitality program and patron of an annual lecture.
I’d been at the offices of the venerable Oxford University Press earlier in the afternoon and hadn’t been able to resist namedropping, out of curiosity about whether Ken’s name would be known in that lofty place. “Tonight,” I said to a colleague as we walked from the modern glass extension into the huge entrance hall, “I’m going to a dinner hosted by Ken Hom.”
“Ken Hom?” he/she asked, eyes widening, “I’ve watched all his shows. I have two of his cookbooks.”
I kept this up as I traveled around England. Everyone I talked to knew of Ken Hom. His five BBC series, beginning with Ken Hom’s Chinese Cookery in the 1980s, and numerous books taught a generation of British home chefs how to whip up Asian fare. In 2009 he was awarded an OBE for “services to culinary arts.”
I met Ken only last year year, but had been absorbed by his Easy Family Recipes from a Chinese-American Childhood when it came out in 1997, several years before I first went to China in 2001. I had no interest in Chinese food, but I had bought his book after reading an article about him in the New York Times. A famous American chef and writer leaving the country for France because he and his cuisine weren’t appreciated here. I could understand the feeling: I too felt out of place in my own country, and longed for a foreign country where I’d found myself at home in my twenties.
In fact, I went to London about the same time as Ken, a story I came to know after reading his charming memoir, My Stir-fried Life. I arrived in 1981, fresh from college (and a job as cook to neighbors of Julia Child), eager for a literary career. He came a year later, to audition for the BBC at the suggestion of Madhur Jaffrey.
Ken’s story is one of immense hard work and astonishing good fortune. Beginning with his hard-scrabble childhood in Chicago’s Chinatown, the book follows his first job in his uncle’s restaurant to his rise to become one of the most beloved TV chefs. The fortune is, no doubt, the result of his work, energy, and sense of vocation. I asked how he defined himself, given his range of activities. He didn’t hesitate before saying, “I’m a teacher.”
Because he moved to the UK to record a BBC series, he ended up traveling in France, and became, as a Chinese cook and teacher, a global citizen, part of a fraternity—no, a community—of people passionate about food, and wine.
Until meeting Ken, I hadn’t realized how perfect California was as a starting place for modern cuisine to have blossomed. My own family came from the Midwest and the most exotic we got was avocado. My parents drank martinis, not wine. But think about it: California was in the 1980s beginning to be a serious wine-producing region, and Asian food was everywhere. I tasted a seaweed-wrapped rice ball in the 1970s, handed round by a Japanese American friend. It was surprising, and not intoxicating, but small steps like that were part of making sushi mainstream.
Ken is an adviser on the Encyclopedia of Chinese Cuisines and our conversation ranged widely. We talked about the power of food, how central it is in most cultures, and how much pleasure it brings people. He mentioned, dismayed, that a recent BBC program about children and obesity did not mention pleasure.
We agree that food in the UK has changed dramatically since we arrived in the 1980s. “We’re living better,” he said, obviously still considering himself an Englishman as well as a citizen of the world, “and Chinese food is more popular now than Indian. It’s considered fast and fresh.”
Since we were meeting in October 2016, we talked about our home country and the political turmoil of the US presidential election and the anti-immigrant rhetoric that had become so loud. In A Stir-fried Life, Ken tells the story of growing up in an entirely Chinese community, but gradually moving into a bigger world, first in Chicago and then in California, where he started studying the history of art at UC Berkeley during the days of Vietnam protests and the Black Panthers.
“America,” he said, “is a great country with an original attitude, a beacon to the world. America has welcomed immigrants, and immigrants have become American.” The presidential election campaign had disheartened Ken, but he remained hopeful. “As long as we don’t forget our values, do the right thing, and set an example.”
Ken is known for combining Western and Asian ingredients and techniques, for bringing Chinese food to Westerners, and introducing some of his favorite Western foods—notably truffles—to Asia. One of my favorite things to learn was Ken’s unwillingness to see good food wasted, an obsession I share. Here’s one passage (“bin it” means throw it away, which Ken refused to do):
I stared in arrant astonishment at a few dozen expensive and ornate plates, the rims neatly dotted with rejected slices of the black treat that had been touched only by fork prongs. What a strange sight. And what of the cost! Hundreds of pounds of waste right there in front of us. Why on earth had this happened? “It’s the Chinese,” said Eric the chef. “They don’t know what it is. So they won’t eat it. But the plates without truffles on the sides—those are the plates that went out to the Hong Kong Chinese. They know it’s truffle.” “There’s no way we’re binning it,” I said. “Put it in a big bowl and we’ll feed it to people who’ll eat it. And that includes me!” (Ken Hom. My Stir-Fried Life. [Kindle Locations 2626-2631]. Biteback Publishing)
Flying, he says, makes him hungry. His summary of meals on Cathay Pacific during the years he worked for them made me ravenous: “Asian pear watercress soup; spicy ragout of ginger prawns; crystal prawns with fresh basil, peppers and garlic; steamed salmon in Chinese cabbage; and shellfish in black bean and butter sauce. Chicken dishes included ginger-orange roast chicken, and chicken in rice wine with Sichuan peppercorn butter sauce.”
My Stir-fried Life is an international story, truly global, and a history of food and cuisine from the 1980s until 2015 or so, in California and France, in the UK, and in Asia, introducing many of the people and ideas that have shaped the way we now think about food. A batterie de cuisiniers, in fact, move through Ken’s pages. They may not be as raw or raunchy as Anthony Bourdain, but Hom nonetheless introduces us to the human drama behind famous restaurants.
As we finished talking on that October afternoon, other people began to arrive. It was a reader’s fantasy: people from the book I’d just read appearing in real life. There was Jeremiah Tower, who had once been Alice Waters’s partner at Chez Panisse, and Ron Batori, the wine expert who was a presence in the book almost from beginning to end. The local host at Oxford Brookes was Don Sloan, who was responsible for the book’s existence.
As I was finishing this review, I went to a talk by two former ambassadors to China and met a woman who had worked with Ken Hom. “The word is gracious,” she said. “That’s how I describe him.” Ken’s graciousness and generosity are evident in this inspiring memoir, along with his sense of fun and his appetite for life—for good company and good food.
PS: Ken says he’s always hungry, and it’s a good thing he includes recipes in My Stir-Fried Life because you’ll get hungry as you read. I particularly like this recipe, in part because reading about Terry Waite brought me back to my own days in England. And it’s perfect for my current low-carb diet! Thanks, Ken.
Terry Waite stood at my side, towering over me, as I made him a wokful of Burmese-style chicken, a dry-braised dish slowly cooked in spices and its own juices. Although I had never been to Burma, I had visited a number of Burmese restaurants which had opened in California. The food seems to be a cross between the cuisines of China, Vietnam and Thailand, and is an aromatic and fragrant style of cooking that uses spices to charm the flavours from the other ingredients in the dish. For Terry’s dish, which would serve four, I used a couple of pounds (900g) of chicken thighs, blotted dry with kitchen paper and seasoned with salt and pepper. I peeled a couple of stalks of lemongrass, crushed them and cut them into 3-inch (7.5-cm) pieces. I heated the wok, added a few tablespoons of groundnut oil and, when it was smoking hot—you know the drill by now—turned down the heat and added the chicken, skin-side down. Gently, I browned the chicken on both sides and, once that was achieved, I removed the chicken from the wok, drained it on kitchen paper and put it to one side. I drained off all but a tablespoon of the oil and chicken fat. Then into the hot wok, I added 6 oz (175g) of thinly sliced onions, 6 crushed garlic cloves, 1 tablespoon of finely chopped ginger root, and the lemongrass. I stir-fried for 3 minutes, give or take. Next, I added a teaspoon each of turmeric and chilli powder, a tablespoon of light soy sauce and 3 tablespoons of water. The chicken thighs were returned to the wok and stir-fried to ensure they were coated in the spicy mixture. I turned the heat right down—as low as it would go—and put a lid on the wok. Terry and I chatted for 20 minutes, by which time the chicken was cooked; the dish was done and ready to be eaten in the grounds of Cambridge on that warm summer’s day. (Ken Hom. My Stir-Fried Life [Kindle Locations 2843-2847]. Biteback Publishing.)