January 28, 1998 in Food

Hom Cookin’ Renowned Chef Ken Hom Offers Some Home-Style Chinese Recipes In His Latest Cookbook

Sherri Eng San Jose Mercury News

My grandmother and I didn’t need words to communicate. Although she spoke the tongue of her native Canton and I was limited to English, we found a common language through food.

My fondest memories of my grandmother are of her shuffling downstairs to our apartment, appearing at the door with a bowl of mouthwatering delicacies in her outstretched hands. And while my Chinese skills barely passed the first-grade level, I fully understood my grandmother’s oft-repeated phrase: “Eat, eat,” as she pushed the bowl of steaming food toward me.

These weekly delectable deliveries often consisted of rice porridge, black bean sauce beef chow fun or steamed pork with salted fish. I often wondered how she could come up with such delightful concoctions, as recipes and cookbooks were nonexistent in her kitchen.

Now, renowned chef Ken Hom has dispelled the mystery of home-style Chinese cooking. In his 14th and latest cookbook, “Easy Family Recipes From a Chinese-American Childhood” (Alfred A. Knopf, 1997), Hom offers 150 recipes for popular home-style dishes as well as more traditional versions of such restaurant standards as moo goo gai pan, chop suey and egg foo young.

In addition to the nostalgia he invokes, Hom aims to show that Chinese cooking is not as complicated or mysterious as people think it is.

“It’s a cultural thing - it’s easy to get into Italian food simply because it’s very Western,” Hom says. “(Chinese cooking) is no more complicated than French or Italian cooking. It’s just that the emphasis is different. For example, if you do Chinese cooking, most of the work is in the preparation. The cooking is very quick as opposed to other types of cooking where the preparation is short, but the cooking is longer.”

One recent afternoon, he set out to prove his point. In the professional-grade kitchen of his modest blue Victorian house in Berkeley, Calif., Hom chopped a slab of beef and sliced several colorful bell peppers with such speed that I worried he’d Ginsu a finger off.

“Most people would call the fire department by now,” Hom said, pointing at the ribbons of smoke wafting from the wok behind him. “But if it isn’t hot enough, it isn’t going to turn out right.”

With a flick of the wrist, he tossed the ingredients into the wok, adding the necessary seasonings with one hand while constantly stirring the meat and vegetables with the other. Soon, sweet smells emanated from the sizzling wok. In 15 minutes flat, Hom had prepared a tasty dish of traditional pepper beef.

“See, this took as long as it would take to microwave prepackaged food,” Hom said with a grin.

This and many other recipes were inspired by his widowed mother who, despite working long hours at a food-canning factory, always managed to prepare tasty meals every evening.

Hom recalls how the pungent smell of black beans, garlic and ginger permeated the small apartment above a Chinese restaurant that he and his mother shared in Chicago’s Chinatown. The clean smell of steamed fish and the toasty odor of crispy burnt rice evoke pleasurable thoughts of his childhood.

“I remember my mother’s cooking as being simple and uncomplicated, but yet quite delicious,” Hom says. “She would create things almost out of nothing. We were very poor, but we always ate well.”

As in many Chinese-American families, food played a central role. Gathering around the dinner table to eat was not simply an opportunity to eat, but a time to trade news about relatives and the homeland. Even today, Chinese-Americans celebrate important events such as Chinese holidays (particularly the New Year’s festival that begins today), weddings, birthdays and anniversaries by throwing huge banquets involving multicourse meals.

“Our lives were built around what we were going to eat,” Hom says. “You talked about what you were going to eat, how you were going to eat it and how it’s cooked.”

As is the case for many newly arrived immigrants, food was an important part of Chinese-Americans’ cultural identity. Hom’s mother and other first-generation Chinese could find their favorite traditional foods in the grocery stores in Chinatown. The aromatic smells of Chinese sausage, roast pork and dried fish reminded them fondly of home.

“This is how we related to each other. Food was important because it was symbolic,” says Hom. “It was part of our culture and was part of us. Food emphasized who we are - that even though we are in America, we’re still very Chinese.”

While an apprentice at his uncle’s King Wah restaurant in Chicago, Hom quickly learned that the “Chinese” food preferred by most Americans - fried rice, sweet and sour pork and chow mein - was almost never eaten by Chinese-Americans.

“People have the notion that (Chinese food) is like restaurant food,” Hom says. “I wanted to show that what people make at home is different than what you get at a restaurant.”

After spending his preteen years in his uncle’s kitchen, Hom knew he didn’t want to spend the rest of his life in the restaurant business. He moved west to study art history at the University of California-Berkeley. Far from Mom’s homemade meals, Hom took up cooking “out of necessity,” he says. “I learned that if I didn’t cook, I wouldn’t eat well.”

To supplement his income as a photographer and filmmaker, Hom began teaching cooking classes out of his Berkeley home. Now an authority on Chinese cooking, he jets around the globe, consulting and teaching cooking classes.

Aside from introducing the public to a new culinary experience, Hom has loftier goals for his cookbooks. He hopes that, like novelist Amy Tan, who wrote “The Joy Luck Club,” and filmmaker Wayne Wang, who directed the movie version, he can broaden his readers’ understanding of Chinese culture.

In “Easy Family Recipes,” Hom has interspersed anecdotes about growing up Chinese-American and the significance some of the dishes play in Chinese culture.

“When you read my book, you will have a sense of what it’s like to be Chinese and American,” Hom says. “It gives you a fuller understanding of hyphenated Americans.”

And what better way to do that than through people’s stomachs?

“Through people’s food, there will be no barrier to understanding the whole Chinese culture,” Hom says. “It’s hard to discriminate against people once you’ve eaten their food.”

Traditional Pepper Beef

Hom remembers seeing this popular entree served even in non-Chinese restaurants, as well as in school cafeterias.

1 pound flank steak

2 teaspoons light soy sauce

1 teaspoon Shaoxing rice wine or dry sherry

1 teaspoon Asian sesame oil

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon cornstarch

3 tablespoons peanut oil

3 garlic cloves, peeled and lightly crushed

1 red onion, thinly sliced

1 red pepper, seeded and cut into 1-inch pieces

1 green pepper, seeded and cut into 1-inch pieces

1 yellow pepper, seeded and cut into 1-inch pieces

1/2 cup homemade chicken stock or reduced-salt canned broth

1 tablespoon Shaoxing rice wine or dry sherry

2 teaspoons light soy sauce

1 teaspoon sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

3 tablespoons oyster sauce

2 teaspoons Asian sesame oil

Cut steak in half lengthwise and then into thin slices, 2 inches wide by 1/4 inch thick, cutting against the grain. Mix the beef with the 2 teaspoons soy sauce, 1 teaspoon rice wine, 1 teaspoon sesame oil, baking soda and cornstarch. Let sit for 20 minutes.

Heat a wok or deep pan until very hot. Swirl in the peanut oil, and when it is very hot and smoking, add the beef and stir-fry for 3 minutes. Remove the beef with a slotted spoon and drain off all but 1 tablespoon oil.

Reheat the wok and oil, toss in the garlic and onions, and stir-fry for 3 minutes. Then toss in the peppers and add the chicken stock, 1 tablespoon rice wine, 2 teaspoons soy sauce, sugar, salt and pepper and cook over high heat for 2 minutes.

Add the oyster sauce and continue to cook for another minute. Stir in the 2 teaspoons sesame oil, transfer the contents of the wok to a platter and serve.

Yield: 4 servings.

Nutrition information per serving: 413 calories, 25.4 grams fat (55 percent fat calories), 33 grams protein, 11 grams carbohydrate, 77 milligrams cholesterol, 1,362 milligrams sodium.

Egg Foo Young

This is an authentic Chinese version of the oversauced omelets typically found on Chinese-American restaurant menus.

2 teaspoons Asian sesame oil

1-1/2 teaspoons salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

6 eggs

2 tablespoons peanut oil

1 small onion, peeled and sliced

2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

2 medium-sized ripe tomatoes, cut into 8 wedges each

1/4 pound bean sprouts

Stir the sesame oil, 1 teaspoon salt and pepper into the eggs and beat the mixture thoroughly.

Heat a wok or large frying pan over high heat until hot. Drizzle in the peanut oil, and when it is very hot and slightly smoking, toss in the onion and garlic and stir-fry for 20 seconds.

Add the tomatoes, bean sprouts, remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt and the eggs. Continue to cook, stirring constantly, until the eggs are set, about 5 minutes. Quickly slide on a platter and serve at once.

Yield: 4 servings.

Nutrition information per serving: 225 calories, 16.8 grams fat (67 percent fat calories), 11 grams protein, 8 grams carbohydrate, 319 milligrams cholesterol, 976 milligrams sodium.

Steamed Halibut With Ginger and Scallions

Writes Hom, “This is a fine example of South Chinese home cooking at its best; simple ingredients blended carefully and respectfully.”

1 pound halibut fillets (or other firm white fish fillets, or salmon)

2 teaspoons kosher salt

2 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine or dry sherry

1/4 cup homemade chicken stock or reduced-salt canned broth

8 thin slices ginger

5 scallions (green onions), cut into 3-inch pieces

Cut halibut fillets into 2-inch chunks. Place in a heatproof bowl and toss well with the salt. Drizzle in the rice wine and stock, then scatter the ginger and scallions around the fish.

Set up a steamer, or put a rack into a wok or deep pan, and fill with 2 inches water. Bring to a boil over high heat. Carefully lower the bowl onto the rack. Turn heat to low and cover the wok or pan tightly. Steam gently for 15 minutes, or until the fish is cooked (it should be firm to the touch).

Remove from the steamer and serve at once with rice.

Yield: 4 servings.

Nutrition information per serving: 148 calories, 2.8 grams fat (15 percent fat calories), 24 grams protein, 3 grams carbohydrate, 37 milligrams cholesterol, 1,139 milligrams sodium.

Chicken-Cucumber Soup

This soup is traditionally made with Chinese fuzzy melon, but in a pinch, Hom’s mother would substitute cucumbers.

1/2 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts

1 egg white

1-1/2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon cornstarch

1 pound (2 medium) cucumbers

4 cups homemade chicken stock or reduced-salt canned broth

2 tablespoons light soy sauce

1 tablespoon Shaoxing rice wine or dry sherry

2 teaspoons Asian sesame oil

2 teaspoons sugar

2 tablespoons finely chopped green onions

Cut chicken into thin slices about 2 inches long and 1/8-inch wide and toss with the egg white, 1/2-teaspoon salt and cornstarch. Let sit in the refrigerator for about 20 minutes.

Peel cucumbers, halve them and remove the seeds with a teaspoon. Cut into 1-inch cubes, sprinkle with the remaining 1 teaspoon salt and place in a colander to drain for 20 minutes to remove excess moisture. Rinse in cold running water and blot dry with paper towels.

In a pot of boiling water, blanch chicken slices for 2 minutes, until slightly firm and white. Drain and set aside.

Just before serving, bring chicken stock to a simmer and season with soy sauce, rice wine, sesame oil and sugar. Add cucumber and simmer 3 minutes, then add chicken. Bring soup back to the simmering point, add green onions and serve at once.

Yield: 4 servings.

Nutrition information per serving: 171 calories, 6 grams fat (32 percent fat calories), 21 grams protein, 8 grams carbohydrate, 49 milligrams cholesterol, 1,485 milligrams sodium.

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