“You can have this,” my mum said during my last visit, sending a Ching-He Huang cookery book my way. “I hardly use it.”
Her loss is my gain, as I have not only been enjoying Ching’s recipes lately, heading to the depths of Paris’ 13th arrondissement in search of the trickier ingredients from the city’s Chinatown, but also enjoying her latest TV series, Exploring China: A Culinary Adventure, which I partly started watching due to recognising her name. Alongside the formidable grandaddy of Chinese cuisine in the West, Ken Hom, she has been exploring China’s different regional specialities, from picking tea in Yunnan to getting rained on in Sichuan.
Now that we’re three-quarters of the way through the series, it seems a good time to step back and analyse what they’ve accomplished. Have Ken and Ching, so far, achieved what they set out to do? As far as I can tell, their aim was to present a geographical cross-section of Chinese cuisine, recognising what each province has in common as well as what makes each place special. To my mind this has been achieved as far as is possible in what is only a four-hour series (the final episode will be aired on Sunday, with all of the others available for catch-up on iPlayer until September 2nd), and in that time they’ve crossed the country, from Beijing in the north-east, to Yunnan in the south (where China borders Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos), and, lately, to the western Kashgar, which bears more similarity to neighbouring Afghanistan and Pakistan than to much of what we perceive to be Chinese. This has given an eye-opening view of just how diverse a country China is, showing tea-pickers, restaurateurs and halal butchers from all walks of life, demonstrating almost every conceivable type of cuisine.
However, Ching and Ken don’t just aim to break down China into digestible chunks. They also slip in a bit of history, allowing us to realise how phenomena such as the Silk Road and the Cultural Revolution have permeated every aspect of Chinese life, including its food. To this end, they as chefs try to understand the cuisine further, and come up with their own versions, hoping to innovate while still respecting and upholding tradition. In doing this, they repeatedly win the approval of their hosts – even if at times this approval comes Chinese-style (where “quite good” or “not bad” seems to be the equivalent of the American “fantastic”).
Ching and Ken also have personal reasons for undertaking this epic road trip. Having been born of Chinese parents, but raised variously in Chicago, South Africa, and the UK, they have a clearly keen and authentic interest in reconnecting with their roots. Speaking the language and cooking the food is one thing – but it’s perhaps another to be able to do that in the places and with the people where these traditions originated. Viewers have a feeling that for them, this is a genuinely personal journey – and this is bound to culminate in a truly emotive finale on Sunday night.
But what do the viewers gain? As well as giving these two talented chefs exposure, the programme educates in a really enthralling way. Not only are we given historical insight into this fascinating country in a non-patronising manner, we are also inspired to get into our kitchens, cook its food, and perhaps even visit it ourselves one day.
For us, the series has also had a perhaps unintended side effect: in the Chinese’s sometimes surly manner, suspicion of visitors and reluctance to compliment, and in the cuisine’s love of all bits of the animal and lashings of garlic, we in fact saw something that was intrinsically French.
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