Chef Ching-He Huang on the culinary philosophy that defined her childhood—and new cookbook
Words: Viel Richardson
Image: Myles New
It was supposed to be one of the best nights of Ching-He Huang’s year. She and Ken Hom had just won the 2013 Guild of Food Writers Award for best food broadcast, which honoured their popular BBC Two television series Exploring China: A Culinary Adventure.
But instead of spending the night celebrating, she found herself standing in front of a supermarket pharmacist, dressed in her most glamorous outfit, urgently requesting antihistamines with a rapidly swelling tongue.
“Ken took us to a wonderful Chinese restaurant after the ceremony and bought us a vintage champagne,” Ching recalls. “I had one sip and suddenly it was like my whole body had measles. My tongue doubled in size and I had to run out of the restaurant. I felt awful. It was while standing there, in my party dress, I thought: something has to change.”
It hadn’t always been like that. Adverse reactions to food were not something Ching had been used to—in fact, they were pretty alien to her. She had absolutely no food allergies or intolerances as a child. So when she started having these extreme reactions, she was mystified as to why.
Born in Taipei, Ching lived with her grandparents on the family’s bamboo farm in the southern Taiwanese countryside, while her parents worked in the capital. “In Chinese culture your health and food are absolutely interlinked,” she explains. “You do not think of them as two separate entities. So if you are concerned about your health the first thing you do is assess what you’re eating.”
As a young child, if Ching had a headache her granny would say she had too much fire energy and needed to drink something cooling. She’d make her a cucumber juice, which Ching remembers as being both delicious and effective.
“I have a large family and my grandmother was the matriarch. We lived in a traditional old Chinese farm court home. It was a family community—all the families had their houses within the same plot of land,” says Ching.
Ching recalls much of the day centring on the preparation and consumption of food. After the breakfast things had been cleared away, the women would prepare the vegetables for lunch, then the process of making dinner began.
Chatter and laughter
“I could see and smell everything that was going on. Sauces bubbling away, chicken slowly cooking, fragrant rice on the stove, my grandmother drying soybeans in the sun. The women would kill and prepare chickens, gut and clean fish, and it was all done in a group with lots of chatter and laughter. I think that is where my love of food comes from. I can still recall memories from that period of time.”
Ching moved with her family to South Africa when she was five, where her father set up a bicycle business with a South African businessman known to the children as uncle Robert. “I remember his wife, aunty Susan, taking us to a supermarket. There were all these foods we didn’t know. She chose a yoghurt and when my mum tasted it, she threw it in the bin and told aunty Susan the milk was off,” laughs Ching.
“At that time Johannesburg’s Chinatown was simply one shop selling tinned and dried goods. She was very happy the day she found abalone, a large mollusk which is a prized ingredient in China. South Africa was braais [barbecues], biltong, boerewors [a coiled spicy sausage. My mother had to improvise, blending her knowledge with the local ingredients.”
The deterioration of the political situation meant her family eventually moved to England when she was 11. “It was while I was at university that I began to realise that not only do I really enjoy food, but I like some aspects of preparing it as well,” Ching explains.
After university, Ching set up a successful catering company, then becoming a high profile TV chef and food writer. Ching’s Chinese heritage was central to her work—and it was this heritage that she turned to for answers when her health began to cause concern.
“In 2011 I was filming a series in America called Easy Chinese, and a Sichuan chef cooked me a prawn dish.” One mouthful and she had an instant reaction. “My nose went red and my face changed. We had to stop filming. I started having to carry antihistamines everywhere. It was like playing food roulette.”
So Ching looked to her roots, and assessed what she was eating. She was determined to avoid faddy diets and detoxes designed to ‘cleanse your system’, and was suspicious of supplements with ingredients lists that read like a chemical experiment.
“I realised that I needed to be able to eat good food regularly. I thought, I’m part of the food world, I know a lot of recipes and understand the concepts of good nutrition. I must be able to find a solution,” Ching recalls.
Farmer, to market, to table
She went right back to those childhood memories of food for inspiration: not just what she ate, but where it came from. “All our food came from the local market and what we grew on the farm. In Taiwan, the food goes from farmer, to market, to table. In our current food culture, we seem to have lost that connection and I think getting back to that is so important,” she says with passion.
“I love talking to the traders about their produce: finding out where it’s from, when it was picked, how it was raised. Sadly, it’s not always easy to tell—we need more markets, where the producers sell their wares. Markets should be central to food planning and they need to become more important.”
Ching began by cutting out sugar, coffee, alcohol and processed or ready-made foods. For the first three months she stopped eating meat and fish, basing her diet squarely upon fresh, seasonal vegetables and fruit.
“It sounds extreme, but I was desperate to find an answer to my problems,” she recalls. “I knew that I might be following this regime for some time, so the meals had to taste good and give me enough energy for my busy lifestyle.”
The hard work paid off, and bit by bit Ching was able to reintroduce some of the foods she had chosen to give up. But she didn’t abandon the recipes that had helped restore her to health: they became the basis of her new book.
“I called the book Eat Clean: Wok Yourself to Health, because I believe that what you eat, rather than what you don’t, must be the focus of any diet,” Ching says with intensity. “Otherwise you’ll spend your life feeling awful. It has to be about buying fresh food and cooking it well. Good food is essential to being healthy.”
Restored to good health, Ching can once again happily sip vintage champagne, without her tongue swelling to the size of a small balloon. Perhaps it’s time to arrange another night out with the legendary Mr Hom.