Ching-He Huang diplomatically avoids ranking U.S. cities when it comes to best Chinese eats, but will allow that San Gabriel Valley (and New York's Flushing) gives San Francisco serious competition for what she calls tastes of home. She'll even name examples available in the neighborhood: chou doufu (stinky tofu), jianbing (fried pancake), and daoxiao mian (knife cut noodles). It's genuine praise coming from the 33-year-old host of Cooking Channel's Easy Chinese and Chinese Food Made Easy whose background alone criss-crosses the world several times over.
Huang never set out to be the face of Chinese cuisine on the more cerebral counterpart of Food Network. Her upbringing may hint at the DNA of a now multi-media catalog comprised of cookbooks and several television series, but cooking was a skill she acquired, and equal parts necessity and nostalgia. When she started cooking for her family, it was meant to help her busy mother. “I had to cook for my father, who is a really bad cook,” she says good-humoredly.
Her culinary education took place during formative years trifurcated by Taiwan, South Africa, and England. By the time she graduated from college, food became a natural extension of her new business degree. She hatched a plan to distribute liang mian, or cold noodles, through purveyors around London who were then unaccustomed to authentic Chinese food. In her memoir Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper, Fuchsia Dunlop describes a prevailing attitude through a 2002 Daily Mail article “Chop Phooey” and a popular BBC News article that played into perceptions of Chinese food as exotically repulsive.
If Huang can be viewed as a social activist, it's more by default of her being one of the few — along with Martin Yan, Ming Tsai, and Kylie Kwong — consistently exploring Chinese food on American television than any design on her part. Huang is honest about her show's premise and while she researches on food as much as possible, she voluntarily acknowledges that she is not a trained historian. “It's an entertaining show on the diversity of Chinese cooking. At the end of the day, it's trying to get people to cook Chinese food at home,” says Huang.
Squid Ink: You spent your childhood in Taiwan, South Africa, and then the U.K. Where do you consider home these days?
Ching-He Huang: It's a little bit of a mix. I'm spending a lot of my time in London and Asia. I guess I get the best of both worlds. I also love the U.S. as well. I've been doing more traveling there. I split my time up in Europe, America, China, and Taiwan.
SI: What are some of your fondest memories growing up?
CHH: For people who think back to happy times in their childhood, it generally centers around food. It certainly was the case for me. In Taiwan, I stayed with my grandparents, who live in Pai He — which is near Kaohsiung. I was there until I was five. We had orangeries and a bamboo farm. My grandmother groomed me to be a cook without me realizing it. My grandfather was the eldest of 11, so therefore a lot of pressure was on my grandmother. She cooked for my grandfather's siblings; they all lived together in this courtyard farm home. Every meal was an occasion. It was great, but I don't know how she managed it. It was such hard work, preparing breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
South Africa was more about my mother and her efforts to create Chinese food for us at home, because there was only one Chinese supermarket in the whole of Johannesburg at the time. We went there once every Saturday to pick up ingredients. I watched her trying to fuse together Chinese with South African ingredients. London was all about me and my cooking in our family kitchen because certain paths had changed which meant my mother had to go away a lot to work. She taught me how to cook at home.
SI: The ongoing theme in your shows and cookbooks is the idea that Chinese food is accessible and can be made quickly. Was that a conscious decision?
CHH: I had my food business in London for about 10 years. People would give me feedback that Chinese food is complicated and difficult. When I was working on my TV show, people would say to me — even chefs — Chinese food is all about stir-fries. It's nothing exciting. What are you making? Chow mein? All that sarcasm. I took that to heart. There's so many layers and levels of Chinese food. How can you call it boring? And how can you call it difficult when home cooking is simple and healthy? It wasn't until my BBC show Chinese Food Made Easy that it became my message. The show did well and it got picked up by the Cooking Channel in the U.S. They said we'd love for you to take this message further and explore Chinese food on U.S. soil.
SI: Having traveled all over the U.S., how does the Chinese communities here compare to the ones in the U.K.?
CHH: There are definitely a lot more Chinese [people] here than the U.K. just by sheer population. With the population, there is even more diversity. The Chinese food that you have over there has been serving the local Chinese tastes of home much earlier than here, where a lot of the restaurants and takeaways cater to the Western palate. Of course, you have that in America too, but you have more diversity in terms of Chinese cooking. I don't like to use the word authentic. You have more traditional fare and a wider range.
SI: What bothers you about the word authentic?
CHH: I prefer to use the word heritage, because it's like authentic to whom? Within China, there's 34 different regions. It's so diverse even within one region. You can have a Sichuan cook go to a Sichuan restaurant in Beijing and he can call what Beijingers are doing inauthentic.
Every family has their take on a certain dish. For example, there are so many different ways of making mapo doufu (mapo tofu). You have the traditional classic if you go to a Sichuan institute, but then does that mean the mapo doufu done by a Sichuan guy in Sichuan is inauthentic because he uses a different kind of leek instead of the traditional suanmiao (garlic sprouts)? It's just a funny word.
SI: One of the upcoming episodes will take place in Monterey Park, which is titled “Little Taiwan.” How would you define Taiwanese food?
CHH: Taiwanese cuisine is an eclectic mix of different cuisines, such as Sichuan, Fujian, Hunan, and even Japanese. It's a fusion of influences just based on its history — what it has gone through as an island. For example, Taiwanese niurou mian (beef noodle soup) or chou doufu (stinky tofu), I'd say these are dishes that Taiwanese know and love. They have put their stamp on it and say this is one of ours.
It's difficult though. When it comes to cuisine, we've had an influence on each other at some point in time. Without any intention of being wishy-washy, it is difficult to claim one dish or the other. In Singapore, they claim that oyster omelette is theirs. I've seen chefs on TV say, “Oh oyster omelette, this is a dish of Singapore.”
SI: In terms of lessons that you've learned, what has been the most memorable up to date?
CHH: I never stop learning, because this subject is just so broad. Recently on my tour in the U.S., I learned how to make daoxiao mian. It's all in the technique. It was fascinating that the dough didn't have any other ingredients, except wheat flour and water. And yet the texture was phenomenal.
I'd like to say that I make a pretty mean dumpling. This time up in Beijing I went to this amazing restaurant where this lady is a master at dumplings who used a very simple technique. You know when you think to yourself you have to try and make at least 12 pleats? Come on. She just used her thumb and forefinger on each hand to press it down. It was the simplest, most beautiful shape; it looked like a shell. I've never done that before. My fixation was always about getting as many pleats as possible. It's just experiences like that when you think “I've been trying too hard.”
SI: You made shiitake hefen (thick rice noodles) with crispy pastrami the other day on one episode. In many of your recipes, you show shortcuts or explore ingredients not traditionally used in Chinese cooking. How did this come about?
CHH: I'm always trying to whet people's appetite. To get them to cook Chinese. I have a few friends who think Chinese food is very challenging. It's them I'm actually trying to convert. They're my harshest critics. And also my mother, because my mother thinks I'm a terrible cook. I either like to shock her or please her.
SI: So it seems what stays Chinese in your repetoire is not necessarily the ingredient, but the technique.
CHH: Sometimes, it's the ingredient; sometimes, it's the technique. A lot of times it's about the balance in flavor. If a classic dish is heavy, I try to make it a bit healthier. If it is perfect the way it is, I'll keep it like that. The main message behind this show is to show the diversity of Chinese cuisine. To show that it's able to fuse with other cuisine and cultures. To show that it can sit comfortably on its own in classic roots and traditions. It has something for everybody. It's not always about takeaway and unhealthy stigma that comes with Chinese food.
SI: How does L.A. compare to San Francisco or New York City?
CHH: L.A. is up there for Chinese cuisine. The daoxiao mian guy is based in L.A. at Mandarin Noodle Deli. You have all the traditional fare. I just couldn't believe it. I didn't have to go back to Taiwan, to eat all my favorite foods. It's there in the San Gabriel Valley.
SI: What do you recommend to keep in the pantry?
CHH: Light and dark soy sauce. Five spice powder. Rice vinegar and sesame oil.
SI: What about kitchen equipment?
CHH: A good carbon steel wok. You don't need much else in the kitchen. You can do everything in a wok: braise, stir-fry, sauté. Maybe a bamboo steamer. A wooden spatula. A good sharp knife.
SI: What about cooking oil?
CHH: Definitely peanut oil. We say ground nut in London. It can withstand high temperatures, so you can deep-fry or braise. It doesn't burn food. You can use vegetable oil as well. I would not recommend olive oil. It can be unstable at high temperatures, especially for the wok. That's the other thing as well. Wok cooking at home is different than the restaurant.
SI: What was the landscape of Chinese food in London before and after your shows aired?
CHH: When I was growing up, it was mainly Cantonese restaurants in London. There wasn't much variety in terms of Chinese cuisine. But in the last 7-8 years, things have gotten more exciting. Now you have Sichuan restaurants. A lot more, actually. Ten years ago, if you'd get one Sichuan restaurant it would be so exciting and unique. In Chinatown now, there are more than a handful — at least 10 that focus on Sichuan cuisine. It has changed a lot, just going by the restaurant scene in London's Chinatown.
The second season of Ching-He Huang's Easy Chinese currently airs on the Cooking Channel. Huang is also the host of Chinese Food Made Easy. Check your local cable provider for times.
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