The popular Chinese Chef talks to Taragh Loughrey-Grant about family, food and the future.
Fresh from a holiday in Rio, Brazil, it’s more than his tan that has Ken Hom looking younger than his 62 years. He puts this down to his healthy lifestyle, eating habits and his daily swim.
One of the original TV celebrity chefs, Hom’s BBC programmes were must-see TV for cookery fans in the ‘80s and 90’s, with many households proudly sporting any number of his cooking essentials from his seven-million selling wok to steamers and vegetable cleavers. In addition he has written over 20 cook-books and he has sold over 60 million of his ready-cooked meals to date.
However the Arizona-born, Chicago-raised granddad, with a home in France and his adopted Thailand, has other things on his mind and is eager to talk about his daughter Sandra and her children
He said: “I am a grandpa now to baby Leo who is one-years-old and he spent the summer with me. It was lovely to have a baby around again. He will soon [May] have a new baby brother – I only hope he will not be jealous!”
A familiar observation of Western fans of Chinese food is that in the East people look so slim and healthy, yet often people who eat Chinese food here don’t: “Yes it depends a lot on how it is cooked and the sauces that are used for flavour. For example in Thai cooking in particular, they use a lot of spices for flavour and they are also very healthy.
“They also eat a lot of vegetables with their meals. There is great variety too in the meals, in China too. [You might have] one braised dish, might have a steamed dish but lots of vegetables and one of the things that I noticed here in Ireland is that people don’t order vegetable dishes enough – you need to eat more veggies [laughing!].
With our focus on RTÉ Food being Irish families getting together for healthy, good-value meals, I asked Ken how his new range of food fits in: “The way of Chinese eating is perfect for that, Chinese food is very communal - in other words, I think that’s typical. I see my range as a supplement to doing different dishes. For instance, even the time I was growing up, it was just my mum and I because my dad passed away when I was very young [eight months old] but the thing is my mum always made three dishes. We didn’t just have one dish plopped in front of us. When we ate with the family more people would bring many dishes and number one, this is why I think it is good because it is variety and number two, it’s about sharing and when you talk about Irish families, if you have many dishes, then you can share things.
“It makes it much more fun to eat and families coming together, eating like this is very nice. I think my ready meals are really nice because you can stir fry dishes yourself and you can buy some of the ready meals that you wouldn’t have time to make, like the duck and the spare ribs and you just put them on the table and it’s convivial.
“It’s nice that people are eating together and one thing I really like about Chinese is that we have all ages eating together, from grandpa to grandma to babies, all sitting together. If you ever go into a Chinese restaurant you’ll see how noisy it is and I hate restaurants that don’t allow children because I think it’s important. Children should behave, I think that’s really important but children should learn from the beginning to eat good food.
There are thirteen products Ken’s range of pre-prepared foods for Tesco and he reveals his favourite: “My duck, which is the best selling one, the aromatic, crispy duck, I’m so proud of it. I’ve sent some to my Godson, whose Chinese and studying in London and he really likes them. He said: ‘Uncle Ken, I really like them, they’re so good.’ And that made me really happy. I’ve sent them to his classmates and they love them, I’ve sent them to Chinese friends and they’ve critiqued them and loved them as well and to me that’s really important. My spare ribs are really fabulous, they’re pretty good, actually I’m quite proud of the range and it’s something that I could serve family and friends and I wouldn’t be ashamed of it.”
Ken also explained the benefits of continuing to cook with his carbon and stainless steel woks: “In stir frying, we’re using very little oil and we’re using a lot of high heat to give a flavour, rather than using a huge quantity of oil. If you just measure it nutritionists will tell you something stir-fried is at least ten times healthier than something deep fried. I think that any type of vegetable oil is very good but I like to use peanut or groundnut oil.”
Since he began cooking and on the BBC in particular, he has noticed a lot of changes in eating habits on this side of the Atlantic and in Ireland in particular: “I’ve noticed that people are more aware of where their food comes from, they are questioning ‘Is it healthy for you or not?’. I think people’s [food] sophistication has come from travelling a lot. I see Irish people in Hong Cong, in China, in Thailand, where I live part of the time, I’ve seen them in Europe, so travel has been really important to widen people’s perspective about good food and I think Ireland is very much part of that.”
Something that he’s very proud of since he began creating his ready meals with Kerry Foods back in 2010, is the fact that he doesn’t use MSG’s (Monosodium Glutamates): “I’ve never used MSG’s because I think why is it needed? If you look at all processed food, this is what I tell especially a lot of young mothers, look at what you’re serving your children. I think it’s really important and we’re concerned very much in the West about childhood obesity which is really dangerous.
“You’re condemning your child to a lifetime of suffering and ill health and it comes from childhood and eating good food. I was lucky because we were poor but my mum was Chinese and we only had things that were in season and that were really good and I never ate processed food and I never drank anything like coke or things like that, I just drank either tea or water, of course I love wine now [laughing!]”
There is also a strong focus on keeping the calorific content of the range at a low level: “I think it was important what we used and all the food was traceable and also the amount of fat that we used was important so we were very conscious of that. I loved it because it reflected very much I would like to eat.”
There has been a 32% rise in Tesco’s pre-prepared meals and a lot of that, according to the retail outlet’s Lorraine Shiels, is down to Ken’s range: “I feel proud because its good food that I’m proud to serve my own family.”
Ken Hom’s newly extended range of Chinese cuisine is available in Tesco outlets nationwide.