Review: Exploring China - A Culinary Adventure
On paper, Ken Hom and Ching-He Huang might seem like a bit of an odd pair. One’s a veteran chef born and raised in America, whilst the other’s a relatively new face on our screens born in Taiwan, but raised in South Africa and Britain. What they share, however, is a passion for Chinese cuisine, and in this new BBC Two series they team up to explore Chinese cooking on its home turf. The first episode aired on Sunday, and saw them take to the streets of Beijing and the surrounding area, exploring the origins of dishes, throwing in a little Chinese history and stopping to do some cooking here and there along the way.
China is still perhaps a relative unknown to many of us in the West; it’s only fairly recently that connections between it and the Western world have been opening up. The proliferation of Chinese takeaway restaurants, the popularity of Chinese characters as tattoos and design motifs and increasing numbers of tourists taking trips to China speak of the influence that this has had upon our own culture, however the series shows us that, in fact, this is a two-way process. Traditional Chinese cuisine took a beating during the Cultural Revolution of Chairman Mao, and many chefs had to keep their recipes alive through cooking them in the secrecy of the home.
Now these days have passed, China is experiencing a resurgence of its traditional cuisine in the cities, but with distinctly Western twists to them. Meanwhile, in rural areas people are cooking much in the same way they have been for generations. Hom finds this wonderfully moving. When he first visited China in the 1980s, he was struck by how fine cuisine in China had suffered, and how, in many departments, it was lagging behind the world that he was familiar with. Now, however, it seems that cooking in the Chinese Metropole has slowly be undergoing a renaissance for the past three decades or so.
I was expecting this to be a cookery programme, however it is more interesting than that, looking at various cooking methods, though sometimes these methods might make the more hygiene-conscious amongst us balk. In order to make Peking duck, it turns out the skin has to be separated from the rest of the animal but still remain around it. In order to do this, the chef basically blows into the duck with his mouth, inflating the gaps between skin and flesh. An ingenious way of doing it, perhaps, although not particularly appetising when you dwell on it. Ken and Ching also work well together as a double-act. In one scene, for instance, they visit an outdoor market full of various street-food vendors. A little bit different to cheesy chips, Hom tucks gleefully into skewered crickets and scorpions, and we are shown a tantalising glimpse of a seahorse on a stick. Huang, on the other hand is less than impressed: she admits she’ll eat offal, pigs trotters and duck tongues, but apparently draws the line at bugs on sticks. Each to their own, I guess.
Overall the first episode of Exploring China: A Culinary Adventure was pretty entertaining. My one criticism would be that, although it was relatively easy to follow how many dishes are put together, quantities given are quite vague, and it may be difficult to source some of the ingredients used. Having said that, I was able to have a go at making some of my own Chinese dumplings based on what I saw on the programme, although the results, whilst very tasty, proved that I still have a lot to learn.
The next episode of Exploring China: A Culinary Adventure is on Sunday at 8pm on BBC Two.