Ching He Huang is the face of Chinese cooking in Britain. Picking up the baton from lovely old Ken Hom, Ching has had her own tv shows in the UK and US, and her book, Chinese Food Made Easy, continues to sell by the wok-load.
So a bit of a coup, then, for Harvey Nichols in Manchester, which has teamed up with Ching to create a special menu for Chinese New Year, running across most of February.
ILM caught up with her to talk food, sheep, lanterns and unlikely partnerships. Ours, not Harvey Nichols.
Let’s talk about how this whole collaboration came about…
We met the HN food and hospitality team and they came with the idea of doing something for Chinese New Year. I really liked the idea. I love Harvey Nichols and I’d never really done anything like this before. I thought it was a great opportunity to share my recipes with the HN chefs and the team here, and perhaps a wider audience.
And how has the team here taken to it? Harvey Nichols doesn’t normally do Chinese food.
Amazing. Really good. We had a training day in London and the chefs took that away to their teams. It was new to a lot of them but I think they enjoyed it.
Are you a harsh taskmaster, or have you been quite gentle with them?
Hmm…a bit of both (laughs). A bit of yin and yang.
In Britain, we have such a long relationship with Chinese food – and in Manchester especially – and although some of it is very good, there’s still a lot out there that’s not exactly reflective of the best that it has to offer isn’t there? Is that fair?
You know what, the culture of cuisine is progressive, always evolving. I don’t know if I would say that it’s ‘bad’ as such, but perhaps it’s stuck in the past.
There’s nothing wrong with traditional Chinese food but the food here that people would know is obvious. But the traditional menu is so far removed from that – offal, pigeon, all sorts – although I think a lot of people are actually starting to look to that nowadays.
That heritage cooking, and drawing on that for inspiration to take the cuisine forward is happening a lot at the moment. We live in a really interesting time, in terms of Chinese food.
We’re in the year of the sheep. What does that mean in terms of the approach to Chinese food and culture?
The sheep is steady. Progressive, it’s climbing the hill, and it always gets to the top. But it takes time. That’s probably the way we are approaching food too. Slow and steady, but always moving it forward.
So what are the fundamentals of good Chinese cooking? Especially if you’ve never tackled it before.
It’s about getting all the store cupboard ingredients in. You can keep it simple – maybe ten condiments, lots of flavours, very simple and elegant and uses things like black rice vinegar, star anise, toasted sesame oil. Really full of flavour. You can create all sorts of flavour combinations, when you start getting original flavours and ingeredients involved.
The trick it to bring out the uniqueness of the flavours without ruining he ingredient. It’s a delicate dance, a lot like mixing a cocktail. One teaspoon under or over can change everything. It can be rich and complex and esoteric.
With those margins of error then, how challenging has it been to knock out 80 covers for Harvey Nichols every night for two weeks?
A big challenge, but it’s all about preparation isn’t it. Fail to prepare and all that…
So you’ve done the book, you’ve done the telly…it’s a restaurant next isn’t it?
Yes, I suppose it is! I have dreams and grand plans. But it changes all the time. I definitely want to share lots of my food stories and culture with people. But China has 34 provinces p, and all so different. You could have a chain of Szechuan restaurant, or a chain of Hunan food places, or Cantonese, or Beijing. So many places with their own identity.
I couldn’t do all that in my lifetime. And it’s finding the time as well.
There are a few decent and available restaurant units in Manchester. I could out a word in?
Really? Is this a joint venture?
If you like. You have to do all the cooking though. And put the money in.
Haha…I’ll think about it.
What’s your impression of Manchester generally and food and drink here?
The last time I was here was a couple of years, because I’ve been doing a lot of filming in the US. I definitely want to come back and see more. I’m treating this as a great start point. It’s really auspicious that we’re celebrating Chinese New Year here in Manchester to rather than London. You’re getting this menu first.
Well, we are looking to make Manchester the biggest Chinese New Year in the country…
Is that why there are so many lanterns? I love them! I was going to try and steal some.
I’ve got a box under my desk. I’ll sort you out. So do you actually get to celebrate CNY or are you working all the time?
Working pretty much solidly – but I get to spend time with my family. They don’t get neglected.
Great stuff. That’s about it. Let’s eat!
Yes, let’s. And stay in touch. Next time I’m in Manchester, we can go and eat!
And discuss our new restaurant..?
Ching’s special menu runs until February 28 in the Second Floor restaurant at Harvey Nichols.
For more information visit: harveynichols.com