While many people think of Chinese food as a greasy takeaway option, celebrity chef Ching-He Huang is on a mission to sell its everyday, healthier side
Q: You grew up in Taiwan, came to South Africa as a girl and moved with your family to the UK as a teenager, where you are now based. Do influences from all these countries reflect in your cooking?
A: Not so much South African cuisine but I draw from my mother’s improvising skills when she cooked us Chinese meals in South Africa, especially when it was so hard to find Chinese ingredients. I have very loving memories of South Africa because it was my first encounter with Western food, so trying things such as avocado, yoghurt, mielie pap, biltong, ostrich, boerewors . it was such a food adventure for me as a young child.
My cooking now is a blend of my favourite dishes, whether Taiwanese, British-Chinese, Cantonese, Sichuanese or Eastern Chinese. I like to share dishes I think are a joy to cook and eat, and of course that are accessible to the Western kitchen. I have managed to keep my identity, culture and heritage through cooking Chinese. For that I’m grateful because as a teenager growing up in UK, all I wanted to do was fit in but cooking has meant I have been able to keep my “Chinese-ness”.
Q: Have you ever been back to South Africa?
A: Yes, I was back in 2008 for the Sunday Times Food Show. It was great fun and good to be back. I miss the warmth, sunshine and a good braai.
Q: Many people only consider Chinese food a greasy takeaway option. How do you go about changing this perception?
A: Chinese “fast food” is very different from home-style cooking, which is much lighter and healthier. At home, soups, stir-fries and steamed dishes are cooked more often than deep fried dishes. You also use fresh ingredients and can see exactly what you are putting into your food, which makes you eat more consciously. So my recipes try to reflect the diversity of Chinese food, traditional dishes and regional dishes so people can appreciate that Chinese food is not just served in a takeaway.
Q: Who taught you how to cook?
A: My grandmother influenced me a lot because I lived with her before my family moved to South Africa. Although I was very young, I grew up watching her in the kitchen cooking on her enormous wok and working her magic. In South Africa and the UK, my mother influenced and taught me. When I was 11, my mother started going away a lot for work and I was responsible in the kitchen, so I started young. It started as a necessity and I grew to love it.
Q: What are the cornerstones of Chinese cooking?
A: Chinese food is very much about sharing and giving. Food is a means of expression and, in China, the most common greeting is “Ni chi fan le meiyou?” which means “Have you eaten?” No matter which part of China you come from, everyone is united by this single bond – the passion for sharing good food.
Eating seasonally and with balance is also very important, understanding the balance of yin and yang energy in ingredients as well as in methods of cooking. The goal is to nourish the body with the right foods giving it the right energy it needs.
Q: One of the essentials of Chinese cooking is a wok. Which is the best to buy?
A: If you have an electric hob, use a flat-bottomed wok, but the best is to have a gas hob and either a flat-bottomed wok or round-bottomed (but you will need a wok ring to keep it stable). Woks come typically in two materials, carbon steel and cast iron. Carbon steel is lighter and, if you are a beginner, buy a non-stick one as it is easier to look after. However, when you are used to wok cooking, invest in an unseasoned carbon steel or cast-iron wok and create your own seasoning. It is healthier this way as some non-stick coating can be toxic if heated over 230°C.
Make sure you buy a wok light enough to handle for tossing the food. I like a 14-inch wok (cooks for a family of three to four) with a bamboo handle, so it’s easier to lift. With a wok, you can cook soups, braise, steam, shallow-fry, deep-fry and stir-fry, so it pays to invest in a good one.
Q: What are some essential store cupboard ingredients for Chinese cooking?
A: Light soy sauce, dark soy sauce, a good quality oyster sauce, Chinese five spice powder, toasted sesame oil, Shaoxing rice wine (or dry sherry). Use groundnut oil or vegetable oil for cooking.
Q: You have published three books, China Modern, Chinese Food Made Easy andChinese Food in Minutes. Out of all your recipes, is there one you go back to again and again?
A: There are so many I rely on! But if there is one, it would have to be my seafood congee.
Q: You are well known for your healthy touch to Chinese cooking. Share a traditional recipe that you have given a healthy makeover.
A: It would have to be my grandmother’s traditional zong zi or bamboo-wrapped rice dumplings. She used to use fatty belly pork and salted duck egg, fill the dumpling with raw rice, fried peanuts and the pork and egg yolk, then either boil or steam them for hours until the rice was cooked. I use cooked rice, seasoned and stir-fried. For the filling, I use lean chicken, stir-fried with Chinese mushrooms, five spice, soy and shallots, cashew nuts and then wrap them in the bamboo leaves so they are ready to eat. It takes half the time and is much healthier.
Q: MSG is something we are told to avoid yet the Chinese use liberal amounts of it in their cooking. Why?
A: MSG was not made in China. It is from Japan and was introduced to Chinese cooking. I don’t believe in its use because fresh ingredients have natural glutamates in them so it is not necessary to add it to food, especially if you use quality ingredients. When MSG is added, there is only one flavour profile and that is salty, whereas flavours should always be more balanced. Chinese food is subtle and the mixture of ingredients should give it layers of flavour.
By Hilary Biller. Read the article here.