Ching-He Huang is an ambassador of sorts, reaching across continents, cultures and generations, bridging the gaps with little more than a wok and a smile.
The Cooking Channel’s rising star, host of “Easy Chinese,” is perhaps best-known to food TV fans as the petite Chinese woman with the British accent.
“I’m a bit of a puzzle to people, I know,” Ching told me in an interview at Cooking Channel’s New York studio, fresh from an appearance on the Today Show. “I look Asian, but I sound British.”
The perfectly logical explanation for that, of course, is that she is both. Born in Taiwan, Ching spent five years of her early childhood in South Africa, where the family moved for her father’s business. When she was 11, they moved to London, where she has been for the past 20 years.
While her increasingly popular show has just started its second season on Cooking Channel, Ching is no stranger to cooking on television. Her first program, “Ching’s Kitchen,” was originally shown on UKTV Food in 2005. She has appeared on numerous other cooking shows in the UK. “Easy Chinese” is also shown in New Zealand, Germany, Iceland, Poland, Australia and Belgium and has been picked up by BBC’s Lifestyle channel for all its Asian feeds, including China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and Korea.
She is also the author of bestselling cookbooks “Chinese Food Made Easy,” “China Modern” and “Ching’s Fast Food.”
In her show’s second season, Ching continues to do her thing – namely giving traditional Chinese dishes a big pinch of her own flavor. If you’ve never thought about using pan-crisped pastrami bits on top of black bean ho fun, for example, you might want to tune in and watch Ching rock the wok.
The program’s focus is not only discovering creative ways to create traditional Chinese cuisine, but also to show viewers how to use local, easy-to-find ingredients.
“I grew up on my grandparents’ farm,” Ching explains. “Being in that kind of environment really puts you in touch with nature, and shows you where food actually comes from. Too many people these days get their food out of a packet, which is not particularly healthy or inspiring.”
When her father’s business began to struggle, Ching found herself having to help cook for her family, and food became not only a necessity, but her saving grace.
“Food has sustained me,” she says. “It has sustained me both in the physical sense of cooking for my family and myself, but also it has put me in touch with my Chineseness. For so long, I wanted nothing more than to be a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Brit. But cooking Chinese, and bringing it to television, has put me in touch with my own cultural identity, with who I am.”
While her show explores New York and Los Angeles, Ching still makes her home in London with her fiance, actor Jamie Cho. As only a globe-trotting foodie can, she explains where the best Chinatowns are, where to find the most exotic ingredients and where to get the best Chinese food on this side of the Great Wall. (Ready for this? Queens. Flushing, to be specific.)
Over a cooking demonstration in the Food Network’s kitchens, Ching explains that bringing her own flair to traditional Chinese dishes is something she watched her mother do.
“I learned to love the classic stuff from my grandmother,” she says, checking the water under a giant steamer. “But my mother would break a lot of the rules. She taught me how to cook with whatever I had on hand.”
Chinese food, Ching says, has begun to shake off the MSG-laden, “an hour later and you’re hungry again” reputation that plagued it for so many years as more people are discovering how healthy, and versatile, it can be. She uses only a small amount of oil in her wok when she stir fries vegetables, and instead of MSG – which she admits she secretly likes – she grates a little vegetable bouillon over the top.
“Chinese cooking is enjoying a revival lately,” she says. “All these great chefs talk of the ‘Asian influence’ of their cooking, and whether they mean Korean or Thai or Vietnamese, it all comes back to Chinese cooking. That’s where it all started.”
She takes two heavy cleavers to the narrow slab of pork on her cutting board.
“So much Chinese cooking is done the old way, and back then, you didn’t have machines to grind meat for you,” she says, the cleavers turning into flashing blurs of silver as she makes short work of of the pork. “When you hear this sound in a Chinese home, you know someone’s making meatballs,” she says, pounding away. The result: ground pork. She adds an egg yolk and some spices before shaping them into tidy little meatballs using the tips of the cleavers (those with lesser knife skills can use their hands), dusting them with cornstarch and then rolling them in sticky rice. Into the steamer they go, and the resulting dish, which Ching calls “Pearly Pork Balls” is simple, elegant and delicious.
“At the heart of it, home cooking is healthier,” she says, adding that the Chinese believe to be healthy, a meal should include something salty, something bitter, something sweet and something sour. The most difficult of those to achieve in the average meal is bitter, so they drink tea to add that often-missing element.
Ching serves up what she’s cooked, watching as her guests dig in – some with forks, the braver ones with chopsticks. The flavors explode, the spices sing. The food is outstanding. She knows it, but there is no ego in her little-girl grin.
“Cooking is vast, interesting, amazing,” she says. “I’m just the messenger.”