Northside SF
Cover Story
Chinese food, Ching's way

photos: courtesy of The Cooking Channel
On a chilly morning in San Francisco’s Chinatown, Ching-He Huang is seated at the counter of the Vital Tea Leaf tasting room and shop (1044 Grant Avenue at Jackson) listening intently to the energetic “Uncle Gee” as he extols the virtues of milk tea, which smells oddly like buttered popcorn. “They irrigate the tea with powdered milk,” Uncle Gee explains as he tosses out the first cup. “The first cup is always thrown out,” Huang explains in her charming British accent. “It’s called ‘the enemy’s cup,’ and it’s always thrown out to get rid of impurities.”

Huang has been in the San Francisco Bay Area for six weeks taping a second season of her popular series Chinese Food Made Easy on the Cooking Channel (the year-old sister of the Food Network) called Easy Chinese: San Francisco and it’s clear she’s fallen in love with her new locale. “When I first arrived, I needed to buy a wok, so I went to see Ms. Tane Chan at the Wok Shop (718 Grant Avenue at Sacramento). She’s been there for 40 years selling woks at a proper wok shop,” Huang says, her eyes lighting up with excitement. “She’ll help you pick the right wok and teach you how to season it. You are so lucky to have that here on your doorstep. We don’t have that in London; we have Chinese supermarkets with a small section for woks.”

And how do you season a wok? “With scallions and a little oil until they burn,” Huang explains.
Along with her TV series, Huang is the author of more than half a dozen cookbooks about Chinese cuisine and was featured on the Nov. 26, 2010 cover of USA Weekend with Iron Chef Michael Symon as one of “America’s Coolest New Chefs.”
Born in Taiwan, Huang and her brother spent a lot of time with their grandparents while their mother, an accountant trainee, and their father, in construction, worked in the city of Taipei. Her father eventually moved the family to South Africa for business. A self-taught cook, Huang says her interest in food developed at an early age while watching her grandmother wrap hundreds of bamboo parcels of sticky rice for the Dragon Boat Festival.

Talented and lovely with a quick wit to match, Huang is poised to become as big a culinary star in the United States as she is at home in the United Kingdom.

Dishing with … Ching-He Huang

Food Style: Reinvented Chinese classics.

Upcoming projects: Her 13-episode series Easy Chinese: San Francisco debuts Sept. 10 on the Cooking Channel.

Fun Facts: Huang graduated from London’s Queen Mary Westfield College in 1999 with a first class economics degree. She once led Prince Charles and his wife Camilla (who she describes as “elegant, charming and funny”) on a tour of London’s Chinatown.

What is the last thing you cooked for yourself?
Sticky rice in a lotus leaf for my friend Don who was visiting – we got tea from the Vital Tea Leaf and made tea-infused cocktails like oolong rose tea with raspberry and rose cordials; jasmine pearl tea with ginger and mint; and an elderflower cordial.

Last restaurant where you dined and the best thing you  ate there?
We didn’t dine there, but we got takeout from Mission Chinese, and it was really good and really interesting. I liked the congee (rice porridge) with crab, beef and soft-poached egg; and the “thrice-cooked bacon,” which reminded me of twice-cooked bacon Hunan style. They also do kung pao pastrami!

What are your three favorite restaurants in Chinatown?
For dim sum, I like Great Eastern. My uncle lives here and he swears by R&G Lounge – every dish is perfect. I really enjoyed the dried scallops cooked in seafood gravy over braised winter melon and the manila clams in custard, which was nice and wobbly. And Golden Gate Bakery has the best egg tart I’ve had – the egg custard is also nice and wobbly. You can tell I like wobbly things – except for my thighs!

What was your favorite childhood food?
Shui jiao – boiled dumplings filled with pork and celery or ground pork and chives or shrimp.

Something in your fridge or freezer that would surprise people?
Smelly tofu – fermented white and red – I eat it for breakfast over rice or organic oats with a fried egg and soy sauce. When I was growing up, breakfast was congee, pickled cucumbers, salted peanuts, fermented tofu, shreds of pork, and an egg if you were lucky. There were 25 of us living in this courtyard home – it had a big wooden door that led to rows of houses in a square. All my great aunts and uncles lived there. It had peasanty gardens, chickens and a bamboo farm. My father would take the bamboo to the local market to trade.

Favorite places you filmed for the new season?
Far West Fungi Farm in Moss Landing – they also have a great store in the Ferry Building for anyone who loves mushrooms; making tacos with my fragrant duck recipe at La Taqueria in the Mission with the owner, Miguel; working with fresh abalone at the Monterey Abalone Company; visiting Serendipity Farms in Carmel, where they grow certified organic produce like bok choy – it was so serene and yet wild; and of course Ms. Chan at the Wok Shop, and the Dragon Boat races in Foster City … really, everything here was a highlight!

If you retired tomorrow, what dish would you be remembered for?
Crispy fragrant duck – I get some juicy thighs and rub them with Chinese five-spice, cracked pepper, allspice, ground tangerine peel, rice wine, and soy sauce and marinate them with honey over night. Then I slow roast them in the oven, shred the meat into tiny pieces, dip the pieces in potato starch, and fry them. You can serve it on pickled radishes and cucumbers, over a salad, or stuff it into buns. It’s my shortcut for Peking duck.

Why do you think Americans love to eat Chinese food but fear cooking it?
I think they’re afraid of the number of ingredients and steps involved, but like I always say, if I can cook it, you can. Everything I cook I learned on my own. If I can do it on location, anyone can do it at home! Chinese food is all about freshness. On the show, I break everything down into steps that are easy to follow. I like to think even a beginning or intermediate cook would be inspired to give it a try.

Besides cooking techniques, what do you want viewers to take away from your new season?
I hope this show brings attention to Chinatown – there is so much here for anyone who loves food. The Bay Area is amazing, and you are so lucky to live in such an amazing place – you are so spoiled!

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