A taste of Hom cooking

The maestro explains his mission to Rose Shepherd
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Look, there's nothing wrong with sweet-and-sour pork per se. But couldn't we, just occasionally, order something different? Prawns fried in batter are fine in their way, but how about chancing a lightly steamed sea bass? All right, ducks' tongues or jellyfish may be rather too advanced, but why not squid in chilli? And why not, in place of spring rolls, a cold platter of exotic delicacies? The restaurateur and food writer Kenneth Hom has a mission to bring the best of Chinese food to the British. At his renowned restaurant, Imperial City, in London, you can order such culinary cliches as sweet-and-sour pork. You should not, however, expectthe usual gooey fritters. "If we were going to have sweet-and-sour pork," says Mr Hom, "I was determined it was going to be the best. We do it a different way: we wrap minced pork in caul and deep-fry it. People love it." Thus he sneaks past the more resistant customer something altogether new. Yet still he cannot sell quintessentially Chinese fare to conservative Brits. "We do a savoury custard with oyster sauce. It's wonderful, like silk." But most of us, apparently, prefer to stick to what we know -a No 28, a No 39, special fried rice and a half of Carlsberg.

Never mind. We have come a long way since Kenneth Hom first visited London in 1971. The range of ingredients, for one thing, has increased beyond measure. "The food at that time was pretty dire. I was going to cook a meal, but when I went to the supermarket the choice was abysmal."

Nor, if we have made slow progress, is the fault entirely ours. "Chinese restaurants are notoriously bad at service," says Mr Hom. "This is partly miscommunication, partly the fact that the Chinese in general don't really like to serve. A lot of those who work in restaurants are yearning to be entrepreneurs. The Chinese also have a problem of being chauvinist, imperious, because we have an older civilisation."

While he strives after authenticity, Mr Hom is more concerned with the essence of true Chinese cooking. "What matters is to understand the spirit that guided the people who made the dish originally." Using, if need be, British ingredients, which sometimes have the edge. Kenneth Hom loves our Cherry Valley ducks. "When I make Peking duck in the UK or America, it is actually a hell of a lot better than what is being served in Peking, because your ducks are more tender, and they have a little more fat. My philosophy is to take whatever is good, no matter where it is from.

"Food is not an intellectual exercise; it is a very sensual and physical thing. Eating is analogous to making love; you can't do it quickly, you have to take your time and enjoy it. The problem in the UK is that you don't have a food culture. You have a lot of people who eat because it is the thing to do, rather than something they truly enjoy."

He is heartened even by the popularity of supermarket cook-chill and frozen Chinese meals. ("But not Bird's Eye?" "No," he said, "we don't eat birds' eyes." A little miscommunication). He deplores, however, the orientation - the occidentation - towards the US, rather than Europe. It pains him to see young people drawn to burgers and Coke. It is, he says, "like a thorn in my heart".

In some ways, though, the outlook is rosy. As more of us travel farther and wider, we become less insular. And as we open up, so do more and better restaurants. "I think there is hope, because there are a lot of restaurateurs from Hong Kong and China setting up little places, not making the same old cliche dishes," says Mr Hom. "And not just in London, or Birmingham, or Manchester. You can go to Scotland and find something decent. Compared with 23 years ago, this is a brave new world."

Kenneth Hom's Top 10 Chinese restaurants (excluding, of course, Imperial City)

1. Fung Shing in Lisle Street, Soho (071-437 1539). The crucial thing is that the chef is one of the owners, which means he won't go off somewhere else, and the standard is consistent. It's more for the Chinese than the British. One of my favourites is baby squid stuffed with Chinese liver sausage. Also a type of giant clam, sliced very thinly, barely blanched, with spring onion and fresh chilli - heaven on earth.

2. Yank Sing in Manchester (061-236 2200). Quite well known, and deservedly so, because it's really very good. The terrific thing is that you can have really authentic Chinese food.

3. Mayflower, also in Soho (071-734 9207). It does a lot of good home-cooked-type dishes such as steamed mince pates. Always a good experience.

4. Singapore Garden near Swiss Cottage, north London (071-328 5314) has dishes from China, Malaysia and Singapore. Extremely popular and very good. Try the oyster omelette.

5. It's a long time since I was at Loon Fung (031-556 1781). I was in Edinburgh one year and went to this restaurant, and thought it was fabulous. The owner is very enthusiastic, and if you're interested in Chinese cookery, he will give you dishes he would eat himself.

6. Poon's in London, the Soho branch (071-437 1528). Much better value than the others. Choose judiciously here: the simplest things are the best.

7. I haven't been to the Royal China in Bayswater (071-221 2535) for a while. It was very good. I would check with friends before going there again.

8. At Chung Ying in Birmingham (021-622 5669) they have an extensive menu but a lot of things are authentic and lots of Chinese eat there. Try the shredded eel. Portions are copious.

9. At its sister restaurant, the Chung Ying Garden (021-666 6622), the food is similar, but they have some dishes such as frogs' legs with bitter melon that you wouldn't get anywhere else.

10. The Oriental restaurant at the Dorchester Hotel (071-629 8888) serves wonderful food, excellently cooked, but it's hideously expensive.