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Ken Hom: 'My mother said we were superior because we ate better!'

by Natalie Hammond
Ken Hom - Ken Hom: interview and recipes - UK food and recipes -

Three Ken Hom recipes

Crispy aromatic duck
Thai green curry
Sichuan prawns in a chilli sauce

Q: From what I’ve read about your childhood in Chicago, it sounds like your mum was very creative with her cooking?
Ken: We were on a very limited budget, but still managed to eat well. My mum made a little go a long way, for instance she would take minced pork, veggies and all sorts of other inexpensive ingredients, stuff them in bitter melon, steam that and then put a black bean sauce on it. It was delicious and cost almost nothing.

Q: So was it your mum who taught you how to cook?
Ken: Actually it wasn’t my mum but my uncle, whose restaurant I worked in from age 11. The first things I had to do were peel 50 pounds of garlic and 200 pounds of prawns. Slave labour, but that’s how you pay your dues. The first actual dish I learnt to cook was fried rice in a big wok.

Q: A person’s student years tend to be some of their most primitive in terms of cooking, but you ran a cookery class when you were at college?
Ken: I learnt about French and Italian cookery from living in France and Italy in 1973 and 74. When I came back, I was desperate to make some money to pay my rent. A friend suggested I gave cookery classes and pretty soon I was holding classes in my home. People would pay the grand sum of $40 for the month. They got the cooking class, a meal and wine. The biggest bargain ever!

Q: When did you first visit London and what Chinese food was available?
Ken: It was in 1971. I came over as a hippy with a rucksack when I was seeing Europe. I remember I stayed with friends in Blackheath and as a thank you for them putting me up I would cook Chinese for them. That’s the first time I looked for ingredients in London and it was pretty dismal. The ginger was pathetic and shrivelled.

Q: What about Chinese restaurants?
Ken: To see Chinese restaurants serving chips and curry was very strange. They were serving anglicised versions of what they thought diners wanted, like chop suey. Luckily because I speak Cantonese I was able to get the real thing.

Q: What are the biggest mistakes that British people make when they’re cooking Chinese food?
Ken: They tend to be too ambitious, make too many stir-fry dishes and don’t balance their meals. In other words, they cook too many meat dishes. If you look how the Chinese eat, we have maybe one meat dish, a lot of vegetables and seafood. A mixture of things is what makes a good Chinese meal.

Q: Isn’t it hard for people to make so many different dishes when they’re busy?
Ken: My mum worked and was able to put three dishes on the table for the two of us, which were delicious. She wasn’t slaving away.

Q: You grew up in America and live between Paris, Bangkok and Rio, but do you still consider yourself first and foremost Chinese?
Ken: Absolutely, I didn’t speak English until I was six years old. My formative years were very Chinese. I didn’t eat non-Chinese food until I went to school.

Q: What did you think of school food?
Ken: I thought it confirmed everything my mother said – we were superior because we ate better! I remember the first time I saw a turkey I was horrified. I thought it was radioactive or something because it was so huge. It didn’t look real.

Q: Did you find it difficult merging into the American culture?
Ken: At the beginning, because I didn’t speak English, I had a really hard time. I was made fun of, children can be cruel, and I didn’t understand American culture because I lived in a Chinese bubble. I used to go and watch Chinese films in a Chinese cinema. It was like I was living in China, but on an island. It’s funny, but I actually feel more British than I do American. I didn’t have that feeling of being discriminated against, which I felt in the States.

Q: Do you eat Chinese food for most of your meals?
I love all kinds of food, but Chinese is still my favourite. When I want comfort food, it has to Chinese. You should see what I’m bringing back to Paris, Chinese sausages, moon cakes…

Q: How many woks do you own?
Ken: At my cooking school in California I had about fifty but I’ve pared it down now and I only have about 10 or 12.

Q: Do you think you’d ever want to live in China?
Ken: Not at my age. It’s a country for young people who want to achieve something. I like living in Thailand because it has a much slower pace. Paris and Bangkok are both very much food cities, which is what I like about them.

Q: What was it like going back to China with British food writer and TV chef Ching-He Huang in 2012? 
Ken: Our perspectives are very different. She’s very young and only knows of a China that is doing well, but I know of a China that was much poorer. Growing up in the States, we Chinese were always looked down upon simply because China was very weak. Ching represents the modern Chinese and I’m, of course, two or even three generations before her so the way we see being Chinese is very different. What connects us to our culture and our past – even though neither of us was born in China – is food. 

Q: This year you’re celebrating the 30th anniversary of your first TV series - what’s been your proudest achievement to date?
Ken: The amount of money I’ve been able to raise for Action Against Hunger. That has made me really proud.

Q: You’re credited with introducing Chinese cooking to this country and have sold over 270,000 books in the UK since 2000, what else do you want to achieve?  
Ken: The charitable causes I’m working on now are my passion. What I also really want to do is teach people not to waste food. Apparently, half the food in this country is thrown in the bin – it’s unconscionable. It’s so different in other countries – if something’s in the bin, it deserves to be in the bin. People use everything up. The thing is I don’t waste because I’m cheap! When you grow up with nothing you really learn that. 

Ken Hom’s range of chilled ready meals are available from Tesco. To download a copy of Ken’s 30th anniversary booklet, visit  

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