When did you first get the cooking bug?
On my grandmother’s knee when I was five years old. Then when I was 11 and I first moved to the US my mother was away a lot, so I had to cook for my dad – he’s a really bad cook.
You didn’t train as a chef, where did you learn your expertise?
My mother used to teach me a few dishes at a time before she went away. And then I learnt as I went along when I set up my company; Fuge Ltd [creating healthy, nutritious Chinese food items for shops].
You have an eclectic cultural background; do you think that has helped you experiment with your cooking?
Yes – my mum was always improvising, her cooking was traditional Chinese but it really depended on whether she could get her hands on the ingredients she wanted. She is really experimental and I’ve inherited this!
Where do you get your inspiration for new recipes?
When I shop around for ingredients at the Chinese supermarket, Asia trips abroad, eating with my family in Taiwan, visiting night markets and then sometimes a recipe will pop into my head when I’m driving, or dreaming.
What would you say are your major food influences?
Traditional Chinese but modernised – how to make dishes easy and simple without losing elements of cultural and traditional roots.
You traveled around China in 2007 was that an inspirational experience?
110%! I always learn when I travel in China.
Do you enjoy being creative in the kitchen?
Absolutely, sometimes I stare at what I have in the fridge, freezer and store cupboard and then I’m like – let’s do it!
Do you ever fuse your Chinese recipes with food from other cultures?
Yes, mostly South East Asia and Japanese. I love Japanese food – it influenced Taiwan a lot.
Do you ever modernise traditional recipes?
Yes I do sometimes, I make the methods shorter and use less ingredients.
Do you think quality ingredients are the basis to exceptional food?
Quality ingredients make up 70 percent of any dish and then the rest is skill. I learnt this from Toto – the godfather of Chinese cooking in Hong Kong – and he’s absolutely right.
Your BBC series Chinese Food Made Easy had a cult following, were you looking to get into the media?
My friend Fiona Cho, who I worked with a few years ago gave me my break – she recommended that I go on Great Food Live to try and publicise my noodles, so I went for a screen test, made a buckwheat noodle salad and the rest is history.
How have you coped with your new celebrity status?
What celebrity status? I’m just a normal human being, happy to be working and really chuffed that people enjoy my food and my kind of cooking.
In the series you took up the challenge of showing the British public how easy it can be to cook Chinese cuisine, what reaction did you get?
Great feedback! I had such fun; I had so many unforgettable experiences that will stay with me for a very long time. I love it when people are sceptical and then they try and see how you see it and then love it. It’s beautiful when that happens. It’s unbelievably satisfying – the best!
Indian and Italian dishes have become staples in the nation’s kitchens, why do you think Chinese home cooking is less widespread?
People think it’s complicated and you need hundreds of ingredients. Once you have a staple store cupboard, the rest is easy.
Do you think the popularity of often unhealthy Chinese takeaways have exacerbated this situation?
There are some good ones and really bad ones and as a nation, I think people are more aware of what they put in their bodies. Generally Chinese food doesn’t receive the recognition or accolade as it should and that’s a shame because it is complex in terms of cooking techniques, flavours and pairing of ingredients with the traditional philosophy of Yin and Yang cooking. Chinese takeaways do not highlight the breadth and the possibilities of Chinese food. Home-style Chinese food is only one part – there is street food, different regional food, fusion Chinese food, festival food. After all there are over 34 regions in China each with differing climate, produce, customs and language so there is plenty yet to be discovered and learned, this is what I would like to make people more aware of.
How do you find working as a female chef in a male dominated industry?
Tough – you have to prove yourself and have stamina and muscle in the kitchen.
What do you think is the most important principle when cooking a Chinese dish?
Treating the ingredients with respect as well as the timing and temperature control of the wok.
What would you say are the true ethics behind authentic Chinese cooking?
Health and more health. It’s about conserving fuel and making the food go further, because a lot of the cooking styles and techniques were developed during frugal times.
What advice would you give to someone who’s never tried Chinese cooking before?
Invest in five to six store cupboard essentials. Cook a delicious stir-fry and then carry on, you won’t be disappointed and then you won’t be able to live without it. Especially in such frenetic times – a wok and five ingredients means you can have dinner in less than 10 minutes, provided you can chop fast. Plus it’s never boring and the results are always fabulous.
What tools would you recommend for the amateur cook?
A good non-stick carbon steel wok to start, and a wooden spatula.
In the current economic climate saving money is important, do you think Chinese food lends itself to this new mentality?
Absolutely, use a small amount of fuel to cook the food, less than four ingredients, and a few splashes of seasoning ingredients and you have a fantastic meal in minutes – what more can you ask for? Plus the seasoning ingredients last for ages and wok cooking helps cook the food without destroying the vitamins because of searing and cooking on a high heat, so it’s healthy too.
What are the benefits of a diet of Chinese food cooked healthily?
It depends what ingredients you use, of course use lean meats, but you will feel lighter, clearer in the mind and more balanced.
Chinese food is often tainted by the presence of monosodium glutamate, what are your thoughts on this flavour enhancer?
There is no need for it. It’s manmade and was never a staple thousands of years ago. You should keep it natural and just use a good quality organic boullion vegetable stock powder if you want more flavour.
What would you recommend to drink with your recipes?
Good German Riesling – it’s refreshing and crisp. I generally find good white wines make a fine accompaniment to my recipes.
Do you ever tire of cooking?
Never. For me it’s always a pleasure and I find it helps me reconnect with myself. Feeding yourself with good food is to love and care.
You’re not only an acclaimed chef but also a successful business woman, what made you set up Fuge and Tzu?
Fuge – because my family struggled for money when I was growing up and what became a necessity, cooking, became my passion and career. TZU – because I wanted a soft drink that is 100 percent natural with elements of Chinese roots, the recipe is a fusion of East and West. And it was always annoying when I was driving and out, not to have a soft drink that was enjoyable throughout the night. There is only so much diet coke and lemonade one can drink without feeling sickly. Also it’s a great picnic/barbecue drink because the sorghum vinegar in it cleanses the palate and the acidity brings out the flavours in food.
What do you enjoy cooking at home?
Delicious soup broths, my beef noodle soup is really comforting…everything! I love eating and I usually just listen to what my body craves – I call it sensible intuitive eating, S.I.E, now I sound like a lecturer…
Do you have any food vices?
Chocolate and ice cream, and more chocolate and ice cream.
What will you be eating this summer?
I love barbecues in the summer – lots of delicious Chinese marinades for meat and vegetables. I love South East Asian sweet, spicy sweet, and plenty of Chinese inspired salads too. As a rule, Chinese don’t like eating raw vegetables but with the flavour possibilities, why rule it out? Anyway, have a look at the kind of dishes I’ve come up with for this magazine and hopefully it will inspire you to try some.
Finally, what’s next in store for your culinary career?
I have another book out later this year inspired by Chinese classics and my own creations and of course, I would love to do more TV. It’s the quickest and most visual way to show off food and share it with the world.