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Lessons From a Chinatown Childhood


If you had a room like Ken Hom's light-filled Berkeley kitchen, you might never leave the house.

Copper pots and iron skillets hang overhead; ladles and spoons frame the professional stove. A second stove is devoted solely to wok cookery. Wide nail polish-red counters provide plenty of work room; cookbooks are abundant; and jars and bottles of spices, condiments and herbs lie within easy reach. It's enough to make you want to roll up your sleeves and get cooking.

But on this winter afternoon, a few short minutes after he bicycled home from lunch at Chez Panisse, Hom is packing his bags. He won't see his magnificent kitchen for months (though a lucky housesitter will).

Indeed, Hom estimates that he is on the road 60% of the year. Don't feel too sorry for him, though: A good portion of that time is spent in his house in a French village, and pictures of that kitchen reveal that this guy must rarely just make do when he cooks a home meal.

Americans know Hom for his numerous Chinese cookbooks and his classes at the California Culinary Academy and other spots around the country. He is a respected, modestly well-known food personality; his lavishly illustrated "Chinese Technique" is considered a classic. In Great Britain, however, Hom is a full-on phenomenon, as well known there as the Frugal Gourmet is here.

His two BBC cooking series--1984's "Ken Hom's Chinese Cookery" and 1996's "Ken Hom's Hot Wok"--aired in prime time and took Britain by storm. The BBC companion cookbook to his "Chinese Cookery" series sold a blockbuster 500,000 copies.

In his "Hot Wok" series, filmed partly in his Berkeley kitchen, Hom took his portable burner and well-seasoned wok on the road and into the homes and workplaces of an eccentric collection of personalities. For Terry Waite, who described to Hom his favorite meal during his five years of captivity in Lebanon (a simple baked potato), he made Burmese-style chicken curry. For the Newcastle Warriors ice hockey team he made chicken wings with black bean sauce--while standing on the ice. For John Cleese on the set of "Fierce Creatures" he made vegetarian beggar's purses and for a couple of Hawaiian-shirt-clad San Francisco taxi drivers he made stir-fried halibut and spinach with garlic. The unspoken message of the series: a wok in every kitchen, no matter who you are.

For his newest series, scheduled to debut next month in Britain and possibly this spring on PBS, Hom traveled to six countries in search of Asian food in all its permutations.

Certainly it can be said that Hom leads a glamorous life. His childhood, in contrast, was quite humble. Born in Tucson, Ariz., Hom moved with his mother to Chicago's Chinatown after his father died in 1950, leaving the two with very little money.

Hom's world, separated at the time from the rest of the city by segregation, became an eight-block neighborhood where he spoke only Cantonese until he went to public school and where he lived in a tiny apartment across the hall from a bookie who cured his own Chinese sausages. At age 11, Hom went to work after school and on weekends in his uncle's Cantonese restaurant, where there were two distinct menus, one for Chinese customers and one for Americans.

This world is the subject of his latest book, "Easy Family Recipes From a Chinese-American Childhood" (Knopf, 1997; $27.50). In it, Hom writes that he rarely felt deprived as a child. There was wonderful food, for one thing.

"My mother's skill in the kitchen," Hom writes, "provided more than physical sustenance. It gave me a sense of security, and it has left me with a stockpile of memories more enduring than any material possessions."

In the quiet of his kitchen, his bags packed for Europe and waiting in the front hall, Hom talked about his memories and the life he has made for himself since leaving Chinatown.


Question: In your newest book, you talk quite openly about the widespread practice of Chinese restaurants having two menus, one with chop suey and chow mein and the other with wonderful fresh fish and seasonal vegetables. Today, most non-Chinese eaters are eager to try everything on both sides of the menu. How did you view the differences between Chinese and non-Chinese diners during your childhood?

Answer: When I was growing up, there was such a huge cultural gap between the Americans and the Chinese. Chinese were seen as heathens, as Communists. Our status was very low. Chinatown was, of course, viewed as this mysterious place of dark alleys and Charlie Chan. It was an American entree into the exotic. You went to a Chinese restaurant for something that you couldn't get at home. But at the same time, the food couldn't be too different. Everything had to be fried. No one ever asked what was on the untranslated side of the menu in those days.

Q: How do you decide what to eat in a Chinese restaurant?

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