There is something slightly Dickensian about Ken Hom’s short, highly readable account of his life and times – Ken Hom: My Stir Fried Life. Not the length, sure, or the easy conversational prose, but the episodic journeying, the rags to riches luck & down-at-luck rollercoaster that makes his story. His picaresque account of a life of very considerable achievement is related humbly, understated almost – as if the author himself was seated across the dinner table. If ever an autobiography called out for an audio version narrated by its writer – it’s this one.
Ken Hom is of course a legend. For anyone not around in the 1980s when he first appeared here, it’s hard to convey how different Britain was back then – although Dominic Sandbrook gave it a good go recently…
Without being too gloomy, the Athena-postered, shoulder-padded, glamour-history is only surface on what was really a desperate decade for lots of people. Looking back, unless you were well off, the 80s had more in common with the 70s than the world we live in now. Even if mad things like the ZX Spectrum heralded a digital future, the 80s were still by and large damnable for many – racism, mass unemployment, a nuclear era … *
In reverse to his own tact and simplicity in the telling of his story, it’s impossible to overstate the impact Ken Hom had on the culinary Britain of the 1980s – particularly way out on the rural edges. Out there we still lived in Jim Callaghan’s United Kingdom; the other country of Duran Duran was just a thing we saw in videos. I had only barely discovered Chinese food – steak ‘Chinese Style, sweet and sour pork, prawn crackers – and suddenly here was this cool guy on the TV.
Of course this is a totally Britain-centric view and it neglects the best bits of the book. My Stir-Fried Life begins a long time before Ken Hom’s rise to UK television stardom. It starts out on the genuinely mean streets of Chicago, in poverty, and only changes momentum towards the contemporary Ken Hom at the very point he fails to start a life of crime. The first third of the book – by far the most engrossing – tells a really inspirational tale of hard work, dedication, risk, chances. As Ken negotiates this tough early geography, watches JFK glide by in his limo, heads off to California in the 60s, moves from an art career into food, what comes across most is not just luck – which he always acknowledges, as he does any friend, generously – but a fierce inner drive:
“Now, see, you can’t just sit on your ass and expect things to come. I don’t care how talented you are, you’ve just got to go out there and you’ve got to work hard for it.”
And Ken Hom does exactly this. As the book progresses it’s clear the incredible determination that went into becoming the successful, much-loved figure we have today. Along the way, he meets a cavalcade of stars, Tina Turner, James Beard, Julia Child, Tony & Cherie, Amy Tan, Kate Moss … the list is endless. If anything, some later sections of the book become too much of a riffing on these kinds of encounters. All of them are interesting, and some very funny, but after a while, reading about rich and famous stuff isn’t so much fun – partly out of naked envy, but also just distance.
As the book moves towards its end, though, these sections suddenly become critical to the whole, because they form the background to life-changing experiences and decisions in Hom’s more recent life. Cooking for Manchester Utd, or lunch with Terry Wogan, June Whitfield, Sir Alex Ferguson – all this sort of thing becomes very clearly contextualised as Hom’s life suddenly confronts new personal challenges, and he makes new decisions.
There are also recipes, and not just occasional descriptions, but 22 carefully chosen recipes from Ken’s life – recalling his Chicago days, working in his Uncle’s restaurant, his beloved mother. The first dish I tried was the Burmese-style Chicken he cooked for Terry Wogan on the TV. This was really simple to make, from uncomplicated ingredients straight to hand and easy to source, and it was delicious. It’s relaxing to make, because there’s a bit of sitting around & calmly cooking chicken. I think this is one of the things that makes Ken Hom so successful – when he says a recipe is simple to make, it is. You get to develop an innate faith in TV cooks like him.
Ken Hom is still a ground-wire, an enabling, encouraging voice:
“I heated the wok, added a few tablespoons of groundnut oil and, when it was smoking hot – you know the drill by now …”
I also made the Stir-Fried Beef with Tomato & Egg, which Ken Hom’s mother would cook for him as a child in Chicago. When a writer says a recipe makes an impact this longlasting, I listen. “I don’t know if the recipe is authentically Chinese,” he says, and I can see why: it’s a dish of minced beef, tomatoes, egg & spring onion. His mother made this particular dish, he says, because the ingredients were available, and cheap. The main blocks are then backed up with soy, ginger, garlic, Shaoxing Rice Wine – and other ingredients more familiar from the Chinese cooking I have tried in the past. But what emerges is really like nothing I’ve made before – something like a ginger-fuelled mince and tatties, or a Shaoxing fermented shepherd’s pie. There’s no potato of course, but what I’m driving at is that the dish has the same impact – filling, comforting, warm. On paper, it doesn’t appear to make sense, but on the plate it’s wonderful.
There’s another book in these recipes of a life lived.
Speaking of cookery, the one disappointment I came away with from My Stir Fried Life – and this is sheer geekery so it’s probably no wonder it wasn’t covered – was the lack of detail on the development of his famous woks. There is plenty of background on the deal – on his reluctance to partner any company that didn’t give him control, and the wild success when he was partnered by a company that did give him final say. But I felt like I’d be happy to have a bit more detail on what he wanted total control over – handle shape, thickness, weight, testing and development and the subsequent branching out into other types, like non-stick. Now I’m well aware this would constitue a yawn-fest for lots of readers, but I would have liked to know more.
And speaking of woks – the book comes with a special offer on Ken Hom’s website.
I was amazed by Ken Hom when he first appeared in this country – just as I was by Keith Floyd as he slurped his way onto my TV. These two are really inspirational characters for me. They made cooking feel like something I could do.
I even bought a wok. For years and years I have believed it was a Ken Hom wok, and have told people more times than strictly necessary it was the first piece of kitchen equipment I ever bought for myself. Nostalgic about this when researching my review – unbelievably there are old Argos catalogues on the net – I was slightly gutted when I discovered I have been wrong all these years. I had bought a copy of a Ken Hom wok. A Del Boy knock-off. A cheap imitation.
It was like Linus, in Peanuts: “You bought a used dog, Charlie Brown!”
But, the person he is by the end of this enjoyable account of his life and times, I imagine Ken Hom might see the funny side. Frequently he pokes fun at himself, and there are comedy mis-identifications – himself, and hilariously, Divine – and there is humility aplenty. I love this similar laid-back persona when he is on Saturday Kitchen, or Exploring China: A Culinary Adventure (with Ching He Huang) – one of the best pieces of cookery TV in recent years. When Hom is accompanied by other chefs on programmes today, there is awe vivid on their faces – unabashed awe on live TV – and yet he just drifts on through.
The food culture of Britain has changed beyond all recognition since Ken Hom’s first appearance, and he is in large part to be thanked for this. But for all that ‘foodie’-ness is everywhere, cooking can sometimes feel even more intimidating than it did back then, as if there are right and wrong ways to explore, too much stuff you need to know, too much to get wrong. Naffness is only the wrong colour of mustard seed away. At the risk of going full Monty Python, I can still remember buying a tube of garlic paste for the first time and carrying it to the counter like I’d opened the Hellraiser cube. Not knowing a damn thing and not being an expert was actually fun. Ken Hom’s enabling attitude to cooking continues to make things fun.
By the end of the book, he seems to find a great calmness in his own achievements, and a gratitude. While parts of his story read like something out of James Bond – Hong Kong, Rio, France, Thailand, black Rolexes & a whole floor of clothes – in the end he has discovered a peace of mind. The days of adventure may not be quite over yet, but Great Expectations achieved, their meaning is re-evaluated for sharing:
“So I have divested myself of many possessions and can focus, not material things, but on the pleasures of cooking and eating and travelling. We all come into this world with nothing – and guess what! – we shall all leave with nothing.”
Ken Hom: My Stir Fried Life is out now, published by The Robson Press.
* “But I have no fear ’cause London is drowning, and I … I live by the river …”