As obesity headlines scream at us to cut out salt and eliminate sugar, you could be forgiven for thinking of Chinese takeaways as the ultimate nutritional sin. Not so, says Ken Hom, who, as 64, has the neat figure and hearty smile of a man who eats and lives well.
“The problem is what people order. Everybody in the UK goes to a Chinese restaurant and eats everything fried. You rarely see them order steamed fish, as we Chinese always do.”
Simple, wholesome dishes will be the order of the day when Hom celebrates Chinese New Year on 31 January. Although he’ll be with friends in London, he’s planning a dinner that will incorporate many of the traditions instilled in him by his Cantonese mother.
“My mother insisted on having noodles on New Year’s Eve as they’re a symbol of longevity because they’re so long,” he explains. “You must not cut them because you don’t want to cut your life short. What you must do is slurp them up. As a child you loved it because you could get them all over you while making your mother very happy.” Chicken dishes – “a symbol of fortune” – and dumplings – “little gold nuggets associated with prosperity” – will also be served alongside aromatic duck to imbue fidelity.
2014 is a milestone year for Hom, as it marks three decades since his debut television series, Ken Hom’s Chinese Cookery, aired on the BBC. He has since become one of the world’s leading experts on Asian cuisine, but remains delight- fully self-effacing. “Thirty years ago I was in Radio Times because my series was just coming out and Delia Smith wrote a piece about how much she loved it. I’ll never forget that.”
Although his pragmatic approach to Chinese cooking aimed to demystify alien-sounding ingredients, Hom admits that sourcing recipes from British supermarkets used to be a challenge. “You couldn’t find ginger unless you went to an Indian or a Chinese shop. Even garlic was hard to find. These days the UK is very cosmopolitan. You have the world at your beck and call, which you didn’t have 30 years ago.
Hom’s latest project is poolside restaurant at the opulent Copacabana Hotel in Rio de Janeiro, where he is responsible for everything from training the staff to choosing background music. “I don’t have a big team the way people like Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver do,” he explains. “There’s just one of me.”
Softly spoken, with a calm demeanour, he is proof that successful kitchens aren’t always run on foul-mouthed tyranny. “Cooking is an act of love. One of the reasons I still love it is because I don’t have an empire. When I cook, I take great enjoyment in it. I love to share what I do.” Unsurprisingly, his friends, including Tony and Cherie Blair, have few complaints. “I’ve cooked for them many times. We’re great friends.”
An ambassador for Action against Hunger and Prostate Cancer UK (he was diagnosed with the disease in 2010 and has since made a full recovery), Hom intends to spend the next twelve months “giving back”. He has donated his library of cookbooks to Oxford Brookes University and is involved in education campaigns to reduce food waste across Britain. It is, he says, his way of saying thank you to a country that has given him 30 “wonderful” years of support. “I consider the UK to be my spiritual home because of how I’ve been received and embraced. They love me and I love them.”