Wok and chilli – our chat with Ken Hom

So today was the day when the Italian side of Blender and Basil got a good lesson on Asian cooking: armed with camera and excitement, I headed to the John Lewis quarters to meet the celebrity chef Ken Hom. Unsurprisingly, the first impression is the one of a calm, kind man whose love for food and healthy living is so obvious in his way of sharing it with others. Also, we have two very important things in common: just like me, he can’t drive a car, and his life philosophy is that “to enjoy life and be happy means to eat well”.

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Ken Hom’s wok in action.

He’s the pioneer of the wok, being the one who actually designed one with a flat bottom in 1986, which works perfectly for western kitchens. In spite of his fame, he says that the dishes people ask him to cook the most are always the same: stir fries and egg fried rice. Perhaps because these famous dishes are the most difficult “to get right” for people who don’t know a few tricks, unlike Ken, who demonstrated his ability with the wok today at John Lewis, leaving the public amused with his tricks and sense of humour, but also delighted with the tasting of his spicy hot creations.

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Ken Hom’s stir fried vegetables with beef

When I asked him for his go-to dish when he needs a quick fix he said that he likes to empty the fridge and add chilli and garlic to whatever he finds! Seems such a down to earth thing to say, but actually Ken often asserts during his demonstrations, live or on TV, how much he’s against wasting food. Leftovers can become wonderful dishes, and with Ken’s passion for chillies, even something that doesn’t taste that flavourful can turn into an interesting dish: “People don’t know this, but I travel with a truffle and chilli portable set!” he explains laughing. “I have chilli oil, sesame chilli oil, salt and chilli mixture, salt and pepper mixture and Japanese shichimi and lately I’ve been bringing Brazilian chilli oil, made with actual Brazilian chillies.”

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Here’s Ken’s super-hot egg fried rice. Delish!

Speaking of Brazil, Ken has opened a new restaurant in Rio in April 2014, just by the beach in Copacabana. MEE (named after the word “beauty” in Korean) is the only pan-Asian restaurant in Rio and was awarded one Michelin star in less than 12 months since opening. Ken goes there three times a year to change the menu and to make sure it works well with the public. MEE’s new executive chef comes from Paris and he’s from a family of gardeners; Ken was very proud to announce the project to bring seeds from Thailand and start a garden there at the Copacabana Palace, so soon they will be able to say on the menu that their veggies are home-grown by them. This would be a very important step for Ken, whose formative years were in Berkeley, California, where as a young hippie he supported everything sustainable, everything home-grown. “We grew our own flowers, our own vegetables…that’s how Chez Panisse started,” he jokes, “I remember we thought it was outrageously expensive, $4,57 for five courses. Of course that’s amazing! And Alice is such an honest business keeper. I support her Edible School Yard.”

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Pineapple and herbs for his last dish of the demonstration

The local garden and Brazilian chilli oil are the first steps towards a more experimental relationship with local products in Brazil, it would seem. Ken is keen on experimenting with different cuisines, and speaking of Italian cuisine, in one of his books he even features a recipe for Angel Hair (capellini), of course, cooked in his wok. Anticipating my curiosity about which non-Asian dishes he likes, he confirms that he loves Italian food and one of the best dishes to do in his wok is Carbonara. “The only difference,” he explains, “is that instead of adding the egg in the end and leave it raw, I fry it in the wok, Chinese style. You know, I can’t help it! Oh and I use that peperoncino paste as well…of course I throw chilli on everything!”

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Spicy chicken with pineapple and herbs

Talking of culture clashes, Ken offered us a few funny stories. He likes making fun of how in Britain you find your local cuisine completely demolished by how they use the ingredients here. For example, when he first arrived in the UK, he was shocked to see that Chinese curry was used for chips. And more recently, he was amused to write a letter to an inspector who complained because in his Rio restaurant MEE they do not serve milk and sugar with their beautiful Chinese and Japanese teas.

Thanks for meeting me Ken – I look forward to trying more recipes on the wok!

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