Ken Hom OBE shares some anecdotes and musings while visiting London town…
Thirty years ago, Ken Hom’s famous woks first started entering British kitchens. Into them went noodles, vegetables, chicken, beef. Chopsticks were grasped – and life became suddenly more exciting.
Having released his wok range in 1986, 2016 marks an anniversary. The 66-year-old chef has now sold more than eight million woks and they’re available in 80 countries. Here in the UK, Hom tells me, the pans appear in around one in every seven households. If you don’t have one, you’ll almost certainly know someone who does.
Hom started out in Chicago, cooking in the buzz of the city’s own Chinatown before moving to the UK. Today, his books, TV appearances, and culinary wisdom is as abundant as spring rolls in British freezers. Many of those, by the way, are probably those of Hom’s own name sold at a well-known supermarket. He’s the mein man.
‘When I arrived in the ’80s, there was starting to be this interest in healthy eating,’ Hom explains. ‘People were also trying different things and branching out to try different cuisines. There was beginning to be an awareness about food from other cultures and more options in supermarkets.
‘I came just at the right time – there started to be a bigger variety of food. Before, in Britain, vegetables were usually cooked to death, boiled until they were soggy. You get much less nutrients that way, and the taste is bland and unsatisfying. I think the British found stir-frying a fresh way to cook and use new ingredients becoming available. And it was easy for young people – an alternative to old methods. You have one pan, vegetables, noodles.’
Hom began to rise to prominence back in Chicago – ‘I grew up there, though I was made in China’. And, actually, it was there where he was first approached to release a wok; there where he first tasted celebrity. But he had less control over the functionality and design of the ‘Ken Hom Pro Wok‘. And he notes that the ’70s was perhaps a decade too soon for ‘Chinese food at home to really take off.’
Arriving in the UK, seeing ‘food cooked in real time’ proved a ‘sensation’, Hom declares.
‘People were mesmerised. It was the same time as Delia (Smith). I did my first series in ’84 and from there around 20 companies approached me.’
Hom is inextricably fastened to the Chinese phenomenon in Britain. From it, we’ve chartered firmer routes into other pockets of the Far East – Vietnam, Cambodia – and we better understand it as a region of bountiful sustenance. Imagine a store cupboard without soy sauce? Consider a life astray of seasoning with the power of dried shrimp. You cannot? No, we’ve harnessed the Far East with aplomb.
‘There’s such quality here now,’ says Hom. ‘In some parts of London it’s hard to tell the difference between restaurants here and in Hong Kong – truly. We’ve got such wonderful Pan Asian food in Britain. Noodles from Singapore, Malaysian curries. Hong Kong has had a massive influence. It’s much more sophisticated.
‘Now we’re exploring Korean food. It’s great – there’s so much to enjoy.’
But while we can be jubilant about the triumphant rise in authenticity and flavour, London’s Chinatown, a favourite for Hom – he likes the Royal China Club, Wan Tai, and others – is in jeopardy. Time Out London noted earlier this year the area’s increasing fragility, the fact London rents are forcing family-owned businesses into troubled times. The big hitters remain frequented and stable. But smaller restaurants cannot contain the astronomic rise in price per sq ft.
‘The problem is, in a way, is London is prime property – Chinatown is now exception. It’s a shame to see because it’d be awful for local, established restaurants to be forced out. They’re part of the fabric of London. There are more upmarket places that are in a better position – but the affordable places, places where regular people might eat are in danger. Chinese people go there.
‘I think it’s quite painful. I know market prices dictate things, but landlords must understand the value of Chinatown. Surely they don’t have to impose everything they are? I’m lamenting the situation at the moment.’
Hom hopes, as many do, that Chinatown lives on in the Year of the Monkey.
The Slovenian horse
Hom rarely allows himself to be sombre too long, mind you, and our conversation concludes in happier musing. Hom tells me news of his coming memoirs. The book – in addition to his autobiography, A Life Sour and Sweet – will be titled Spicy Memoirs, and if the following is anything to go by, will be as tremendous as a steaming plate of dim sum.
‘It’s full of my adventures,’ Hom says. ‘I’ve been fortunate to travel to many parts of the world and try different food. I love eating local dishes wherever I am – it’s important to do so.
‘One time I was out in Slovenia. I wanted to try its delicacies. I’m so curious, and one evening in a restaurant I asked what I should have. Somebody did translate for me, but they got it a bit wrong.
‘They kept talking about ‘fowl’ – or something like that. I’m not sure how to say it, really (and I’ve no idea how to spell it). I thought, ‘fowl,’ it must be chicken. So I ordered.
‘It was delicious – really sweet and tender. But it wasn’t chicken. I ate it and thought, hmm, this is very different. What is this?
‘I was later told that it was baby horse. It was my first time eating it – and last. I don’t know if I would have ordered it had I known. But it was delicious, I have to say.’