Ching-He Huang MBE will be a familiar face to many readers. She is an ambassador for Chinese cooking around the world. “I’m really excited to be attending one of my favourite festivals again this year,” she tells us. “I’m going to be doing a 30-minute workshop called table sessions where I’ll be teaching Asian-inspired cooking that people can take home. I’ll then be doing a demo on the kitchen stage and a book signing too.”
Do you find it hard to balance tradition and innovation?
I’ve always been about innovation – even when it’s a bit too whacky. There’s always the fear of ‘fusion confusion’ but for me, cooking is intuitive. For example, for the recent coronation, I made a coronation Asian chicken which just came to me. I try to be led by and trust that but of course, there are times when it goes horribly wrong. On the whole, I like to push the boundaries, I think that's what we’re here for, and we have all these delicious foods to show for it. It's very important that we look at heritage but also have some fun.
What do you think is a common misconception about Chinese food?
That it is complicated with a lot of ingredients, which I think can be true for any cuisine but when it comes down to it, it’s actually very simple and does each ingredient justice. A lot of people also think of Chinese food as greasy takeaways, unhealthy, Americanised Chinese food, but I grew up with simple home cooking which is healthy, fresh, and uses seasonal ingredients.
How do you hope to tackle these misconceptions?
I have another book out next year, it's a bit more about the times we’re in, and looks at cooking on a budget. Chinese cooking is so deep, it’s a real subject to get your teeth into because there are so many elements. Historically it’s fascinating, then there’s the health element, the yin and yang philosophy of balancing food, the concept of food as medicine and then there’s the fun bits like Americanised Chinese food or British Chinese food, like your Friday night takeaway. It’s also poetry, it's steeped in poetry. [Chinese food] is all these things, but to me, it’s heritage, culture, my past, my family – all wrapped into one.
Do you engage in anything other than cooking to connect with your Chinese heritage?
I have quite a lot of books on my bookshelf, one called Food in Chinese Culture by KC Chang which is the foundation of my knowledge. It’s anthropological and historical because it gives you the breakdown of dynasty to dynasty and when chillis and sweetcorn made their way to China, for example. All these fascinating glimpses into the history of when all these foods were introduced. I think it’s good to have this research because it enables us to go back to the heritage but then also have fun and find your own voice. That’s what I think food is really about, it’s an incredible link between the past and now.
What are your top three cupboard must-haves?
For me I must have soy sauce, a light and a dark – you definitely need both, dark for that deep richness, light for that fresh, vibrant, savoury pop. Shaohsing rice wine will just draw out the sweetness of meat, fish, vegetables whatever you’re cooking, so I always put a drop of that in. Lastly, five spice is my favourite spice – on a good chicken it’s so fantastic. It’s got star anise, Sichuan pepper, cinnamon, cloves and fennel and these flavours are just at the heart of the sweet spicy sour salty savoury notes of Chinese cuisine – it’s just wonderful.
That’s made me happy because I have all three of those things in my cupboard right now.
Great, so the world is your oyster (sauce).
Watch Ching-He on Saturday kitchen on 24 June, and at thebigfeastival.com this August.