Q & A with Ching-He Huang of Cooking Channel's Easy Chinese: Heritage Over Authenticity + San Gabriel Valley's Tastes of Home
Ching-He Huang diplomatically avoids ranking U.S. cities when it comes to best Chinese eats, but will allow that San Gabriel Valley (and New York's Flushing) gives San Francisco serious competition for what she calls tastes of home. She'll even name examples available in the neighborhood: chou doufu (stinky tofu), jianbing (fried pancake), and daoxiao mian (knife cut noodles). It's genuine praise coming from the 33-year-old host of Cooking Channel's Easy Chinese and Chinese Food Made Easy whose background alone criss-crosses the world several times over.
Huang never set out to be the face of Chinese cuisine on the more cerebral counterpart of Food Network. Her upbringing may hint at the DNA of a now multi-media catalog comprised of cookbooks and several television series, but cooking was a skill she acquired, and equal parts necessity and nostalgia. When she started cooking for her family, it was meant to help her busy mother. "I had to cook for my father, who is a really bad cook," she says good-humoredly.
Her culinary education took place during formative years trifurcated by Taiwan, South Africa, and England. By the time she graduated from college, food became a natural extension of her new business degree. She hatched a plan to distribute liang mian, or cold noodles, through purveyors around London who were then unaccustomed to authentic Chinese food. In her memoir Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper, Fuchsia Dunlop describes a prevailing attitude through a 2002 Daily Mail article "Chop Phooey" and a popular BBC News article that played into perceptions of Chinese food as exotically repulsive.
If Huang can be viewed as a social activist, it's more by default of her being one of the few -- along with Martin Yan, Ming Tsai, and Kylie Kwong -- consistently exploring Chinese food on American television than any design on her part. Huang is honest about her show's premise and while she researches on food as much as possible, she voluntarily acknowledges that she is not a trained historian. "It's an entertaining show on the diversity of Chinese cooking. At the end of the day, it's trying to get people to cook Chinese food at home," says Huang.
Squid Ink: You spent your childhood in Taiwan, South Africa, and then the U.K. Where do you consider home these days?
Ching-He Huang: It's a little bit of a mix. I'm spending a lot of my time in London and Asia. I guess I get the best of both worlds. I also love the U.S. as well. I've been doing more traveling there. I split my time up in Europe, America, China, and Taiwan.
SI: What are some of your fondest memories growing up?
CHH: For people who think back to happy times in their childhood, it generally centers around food. It certainly was the case for me. In Taiwan, I stayed with my grandparents, who live in Pai He -- which is near Kaohsiung. I was there until I was five. We had orangeries and a bamboo farm. My grandmother groomed me to be a cook without me realizing it. My grandfather was the eldest of 11, so therefore a lot of pressure was on my grandmother. She cooked for my grandfather's siblings; they all lived together in this courtyard farm home. Every meal was an occasion. It was great, but I don't know how she managed it. It was such hard work, preparing breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
South Africa was more about my mother and her efforts to create Chinese food for us at home, because there was only one Chinese supermarket in the whole of Johannesburg at the time. We went there once every Saturday to pick up ingredients. I watched her trying to fuse together Chinese with South African ingredients. London was all about me and my cooking in our family kitchen because certain paths had changed which meant my mother had to go away a lot to work. She taught me how to cook at home.
SI: The ongoing theme in your shows and cookbooks is the idea that Chinese food is accessible and can be made quickly. Was that a conscious decision?
CHH: I had my food business in London for about 10 years. People would give me feedback that Chinese food is complicated and difficult. When I was working on my TV show, people would say to me -- even chefs -- Chinese food is all about stir-fries. It's nothing exciting. What are you making? Chow mein? All that sarcasm. I took that to heart. There's so many layers and levels of Chinese food. How can you call it boring? And how can you call it difficult when home cooking is simple and healthy? It wasn't until my BBC show Chinese Food Made Easy that it became my message. The show did well and it got picked up by the Cooking Channel in the U.S. They said we'd love for you to take this message further and explore Chinese food on U.S. soil.
SI: Having traveled all over the U.S., how does the Chinese communities here compare to the ones in the U.K.?
CHH: There are definitely a lot more Chinese [people] here than the U.K. just by sheer population. With the population, there is even more diversity. The Chinese food that you have over there has been serving the local Chinese tastes of home much earlier than here, where a lot of the restaurants and takeaways cater to the Western palate. Of course, you have that in America too, but you have more diversity in terms of Chinese cooking. I don't like to use the word authentic. You have more traditional fare and a wider range.
SI: What bothers you about the word authentic?
CHH: I prefer to use the word heritage, because it's like authentic to whom? Within China, there's 34 different regions. It's so diverse even within one region. You can have a Sichuan cook go to a Sichuan restaurant in Beijing and he can call what Beijingers are doing inauthentic.
Every family has their take on a certain dish. For example, there are so many different ways of making mapo doufu (mapo tofu). You have the traditional classic if you go to a Sichuan institute, but then does that mean the mapo doufu done by a Sichuan guy in Sichuan is inauthentic because he uses a different kind of leek instead of the traditional suanmiao (garlic sprouts)? It's just a funny word.