Exploring China: a Culinary Adventure is presented by a veritable Marco Polo of kitchen equipment, a heroic figure who ventured East and on his return transformed the cooking techniques of the Occident.
I mean Ken Hom, presented to us here as the man who “introduced the wok to the West”. There's a biopic in this surely. “How the West Was Wokked” perhaps, or “Wokking All Over the World”, a stirring tale of one man's battle against the deadening hegemony of the flat frying pan, complete with heartbreaking setbacks and a triumphant conclusion when the John Lewis kitchen buyer finally signs a deal for 30,000 Ken Hom Signature Woks. It made me look at him in a new light, anyway, even though I have no idea how you would check the veracity of such a claim.
Anyway, Ken's gone back to China with an appealing young sidekick called Ching-He Huang, to travel around and see whether the staggering changes in China over the past 20 years have improved native Chinese cuisine or bastardised it. Given that state communism has not famously been associated with fine dining in the past, there wasn't a great deal of tension about the answer here. Indeed, Ken almost immediately shared his memories of the dismay and disappointment he felt when he first visited China, just after the Cultural Revolution, during which the Red Guards shut down restaurants and burnt recipe books because they were thought to be bourgeois. Now the economic boom and the creation of a new bourgeoisie has driven a revival of traditional cuisines.
The attempt to kill off the old skills certainly seems to have been unsuccessful. Ken and Ching began their trip with a visit to a Beijing restaurant at which noodle cookery had achieved the level of Olympic sport. One man was paring noodles from a giant block of pastry with a specialised knife, shooting them at dazzling speed directly into a pot of boiling water. Another used chopsticks to flick noodles into existence from a plate of dough. After trying these techniques themselves, to effectively demonstrate how difficult they are to master, Ken and Ching gave up and cooked a couple of dishes you might actually replicate in your own home (though don't bank against Ken doing with the noodle knife what he once did with the wok).
That's the appealing mixture really: a little nibble at the kind of Chinese cookery you might try at home interspersed with experts doing things you definitely won't, foremost among them, I suspect, one Beijing chef's demonstration of the best way to blow up a Peking duck prior to roasting. After briefly scalding the bird, he performed what can most simply be described as mouth-to-arse resuscitation, inflating it like a novelty balloon. Ching, who had a distinctly unsettled expression on her face after this assault on Western notions of kitchen hygiene, told us that she gets equally good results using a bicycle pump. I find that the best technique is to look through the restaurant guides and go and pay someone else to do the whole thing for me, but this programme did work up an appetite to do that.
Another odd claim to fame in The Zoo, which this week introduced us to Ricky, "the most Googled penguin in the world". Any film about London Zoo has to compete with memories of Molly Dineen's masterful series The Ark, and almost always comes off worst. But if you're just after engaging animals and their besotted keepers it does the job well enough. On this evidence, it's rare to find an unhappy zoo keeper, even when they're shin deep in exotic kinds of faeces. Take Andrea, for example, who moved from backstage work in stand-up clubs to looking after the primates, and doesn't appear to regret her career move at all: "The transfer from comedians to monkeys was really, really easy," she said with some feeling.