Box clever: Ken's wok solid
Saturday 03 January 1998
If, like Bridget Jones, you are facing the prospect of endlessly recycled turkey curry over the next few days (or weeks), then help is at hand. Ken Hom Travels With a Hot Wok is here to lighten up the post-Christmas gloom.
Combining elements of Michael Palin and Keith Floyd's shows, Hom's new series takes in exotic locations such as Hong Kong, Bangkok, Singapore, Sydney, Los Angeles and Vancouver where he rustles up tempting examples of Pacific Rim, or fusion, cuisine. This fashionable new development in cookery melds traditional Western ideas with spicy flavours from the East. Watching dishes like stir-fried prawns and scallops in black bean and tomato butter sauce, or grilled coconut chicken curry, or Asian-flavoured salmon fishcakes being prepared on screen, you can almost smell the wonderful aromas wafting towards the camera.
The globe-trotting chef was brought up in Chicago's Chinatown where he helped in his uncle's restaurant from the age of 11. He now resides chiefly in a converted 12th-century tower in south-west France, but should that ever pall, he also has houses in Paris and California. This TV cookery lark certainly keeps the wolf from the door. The fact that Hom has penned 14 best-selling cookbooks and that 10 per cent of homes in the UK possess a Ken Hom wok can't hurt, either.
Taking a short break in London recently, Hom explains the thinking behind the series. "The idea is something I've been doing for 20 years, mixing Asian ingredients with Western food. I grew up in a very Chinese household, but also in the larger Western world. I wanted to expand people's horizons and show that Asian ingredients could be used not just for Asian food, but for everyday cooking. It's what I do every day. It shows people how to pep up their cooking."
Perhaps because of the prevalence of foreign travel these days, we're all becoming more ready to accept outside influences. "Ten or even five years ago, this series would have been harder to do," Hom contends. "Today you can buy lemon grass, ginger or Chinese cabbage at any supermarket. Fusion cooking is the natural outcome of the cosmopolitanisation of food. Olive oil is not a very British ingredient, but everyone has it in their cupboard, just as everyone has a bottle of soy sauce.
"It's the result of food products going round the world and being discovered by different countries," he continues. "When I was growing up in a Chinese household, I didn't know what butter or cream were. But as soon as I discovered them, there was no reason not to use them. We're not in such a strait- jacket anymore. In the UK, you have people from all over the world who contribute to an interesting mixed culture. It's the same with food. Your love affair with Indian cooking has opened the door to people experiencing all sorts of different tastes. Now the UK has the most adventurous cuisine in Europe. Like many Anglo-Saxon countries which didn't have a very strong food culture, you're not wedded to your own cuisine. You're not chauvinistic about it like the French or the Italians. History is a good thing, but it can tie you down as well."
This new openness has helped to rescue our reputation in the kitchen. "You suffered from post-War rationing," Hom reasons. "A whole generation grew up just eating bland food with no seasoning. Also, it was not considered good form to discuss food - even at dinner. It was like talking about a bodily function. That's changed as Britain has seen a loosening up of the traditional ways. Food is something to relish with a passion, rather than be ashamed of. You've now moved away from that Protestant ethic of never talking about food or sex."
In our new-found enthusiasm, however, we are in danger of over-egging the pudding. On TV now, it's almost a case of too many cooks spoil the schedules. But Hom argues that "fashion and design have moved at an accelerated rate. British people's insatiable appetite for cooking programmes is merely a need to catch up with the rest of the world."
Does he see any sign of the food fad fading? "What I do is not merely fashion," he declares. "If you do it solidly, the bubble won't burst. It's grounded. In the 14 years I've been on the scene, people have come and gone, but those with a body of work behind them last."
One such is, of course, Hom himself. How does he account for his own televisual longevity? "What I do is simple," he maintains, although anyone who's gone 12 rounds with a hot wok and lost may disagree. "My recipes are doable. Many people have also told me that what they like is my natural enthusiasm to share my culture with the wider British public. Passion is what it's all about."
And you thought it was just a matter of slinging a few odds and sods into a hot wok.
`Ken Hom Travels With a Hot Wok' is on Monday, 8.30pm, BBC2
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