Before he turned 10, the chef, teacher and owner of the School of Wok in London admits: “I hated eating – I honestly did not like food.
“Up to the age of, like, nine, it would take my mum two, three hours to get my dinner down me. I just didn’t want to eat – I wanted to go out and play football with my mates. I wanted to go and do stuff and play – I also wanted to eat fish fingers and all the stuff my friends were eating at home.”
Pang grew up in a Chinese household and is a third-generation chef. When he was 10 years old, his family moved from the UK to Singapore for two years.
Now aged 39 and based in southwest London, Pang says upon making the move, his “life completely changed”.
He says: “When you go into hawker centres [open-air food markets] in Singapore, it’s a different world. Every single stall is a specialist in one type of food – not even cuisine. So you might have one uncle who has cooked chicken rice for his whole life, or another person who has cooked Hokkien Mee [a stir-fried noodle dish] for 40 years.
“When people are as specialist as that, you cannot not want to eat it. And you see everyone digging into their food with no real etiquette – but the etiquette is the enjoyment of that bowl of food.”
From there, Pang says Singapore “opened mine and my sister’s horizons” and he fell in love with food. With Singapore’s proximity to other Southeast Asian countries, he was exposed to a variety of cuisines – from Indonesian to Malaysian – many of which are taught at the School of Wok, along with the Chinese food Pang grew up with.
With two kids of his own, aged six and two, Pang says: “I now feel so sorry for my mum.”
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, the chef says of his oldest: “It was really difficult to get him to enjoy anything that wasn’t raw carrot or cucumber – which actually is healthy at least, but every day? That’s hard.”
The pandemic shifted his son’s eating habits. Pang took a couple of months off and “cooked with him – we started making homemade pizzas, flapjacks – anything he wanted to make. He definitely at that point thought he had more of a Western palate, but I’ve known since he was really young and started eating that he does love Chinese food.
“He likes the slightly lighter palate, and home-cooked Chinese food can be quite light – steamed fish, flash-fried vegetables, things like that.”
One constant from Pang’s childhood to his family life now is the concept of feasting – serving multiple dishes for one meal.
“This is how Asian cuisine is eaten, and should be eaten,” he says simply.
“My style of cooking is 100 per cent home cooking anyway, and I’ve grown up with it. If you are Asian, that’s just a way of life. But if you’re not, it’s hard to compute how to get four or five dishes on the table, all hot or in the right state at the right time.”
He continues: “Even if when we’re doing midweek meals at home, if I’m cooking Chinese or Southeast Asian just for the four of us, I’ll quite often cook two or three dishes. Those two or three dishes are there to be shared – that absolutely is our way of cooking and eating.”
Pang’s latest book, Simple Family Feasts, is all about demystifying this concept for home cooks who haven’t grown up with it. Each chapter is dedicated to a different cuisine – including Chinese, Vietnamese, Singaporean and Indonesian – and shows you how to build a feast, guiding you through which dishes to make and in what order.
Balance is crucial to pulling off a feast. “If, for example, you just ate crispy, deep-fried stuff – which is terribly bad for you, but we all love it – yes, you want to eat lots of it at the beginning. But five minutes later, you might get lost in that deep fried, crispy, greasy world, and so you’re likely to stop eating it at some point quite quickly.
“But if you had something crispy, you have something opposite that melts in the mouth, you had something soft with a gentle bite, you had crunchy – usually from fresh vegetables or flash-fried vegetables, salads, anything like that – and you had a perfect balance of those textures. Honestly, I think you could just keep eating.”
Growing up with this style of cooking must make Pang a brilliant multitasker – something he says is “a great skill to have”, but “sometimes it’s my worst enemy”.
“I’m constantly multitasking – I get to the end of the day and I don’t know what’s happened, I sometimes can’t tell you what I’ve done in a day. I might have done a million different things… So in some ways, I’m very good at multitasking – but when I get home, my wife probably wouldn’t agree with that.”
Like all of Pang’s cookbooks, this is an “ode to my father”, who passed away in 2009.
“He’s the one who instilled that love of cooking and cuisine – especially Asian food. He never really taught me how to cook, he just said, ‘Stand and watch’, or, ‘Taste this and tell me what’s in it’. That was his style of teaching.”
‘Jeremy Pang’s School Of Wok: Simple Family Feasts’ (published by Hamlyn; £22).
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