From fixing the nation’s fashion disasters to spicing up our food, following his successful debut recipe book, Gok Wan is back for seconds. Healthy eating may be at its heart but, as the style guru tells Andy Welch, this is certainly not a ‘diet’ book.
When Gok Wan ventured into the kitchen in 2012, with his recipe book Gok Cooks Chinese and accompanying Channel 4 TV series, it proved every bit as successful as his wardrobe-based endeavours.
Drawing on skills he’d picked up while working in his parents’ restaurant, growing up in Leicestershire, the show was a hit and the book spent 10 weeks at the top of the bestseller chart, with the unlikely newcomer proving a match for foodie heavyweights like Nigella Lawson and Jamie Oliver.
He’s now back with a second book, Gok’s Wok, and where his debut was an homage of sorts to his family and Chinese roots, this one’s personal for other reasons.
“I wanted it to look like a fashion book, for starters,” he says, with his trademark enthusiasm. “That was the brief and that goes throughout, from the styling of the photographs, the layout, illustrations, fonts, everything.”
Around 30 of the dishes featured were left over from putting together his first book and the rest he wrote especially, including tried-and-tested favourites he regularly cooks for friends at home, and inspired by his travels all over Asia.
“I spent several weeks writing,” he says, “two weeks perfecting dishes, another two weeks in my kitchen at home with a home economist, Rob, and then a few more to cook the dishes for photography.
“We were doing 10 dishes a day at one point, so everyone where I live was incredibly well-fed,” he adds, grinning. “It’s not long, compared to other people who might spend six months writing a book, but with everything else going on, I don’t have that luxury of time, so I just had to focus, concentrate and get through it.”
Each recipe comes with detailed nutritional information and there’s an emphasis on eating healthily. Wan has famously struggled with his weight and now, having it fully under control and looking healthier than ever - at the age of 39, he recently gave up the 40-a-day cigarette habit - is all too aware of how what he eats affects his body and moods.
“We have to get healthier as a nation, no matter what anyone says. I want to be clear, though, I didn’t want to write a diet book and this could never pretend to be one,” he says, firmly.
“If I eat well, I get my work done effectively. If I overload, I feel sluggish and slow. It’s taken a long time to understand and respect that, having lived on a diet of predominantly fast food when I was younger.
“What I want to say to people is that they have choices. Just as there are styles and clothes for every body type, there’s food for every body.”
He wanted to get this message across without forcing anything down anyone’s throat, no pun intended, and taste had to come first: “If a dish is no good, because you take all the oil out or whatever, then it wouldn’t have gone in the book. I’m a slave to my palate.”
Among his favourite recipes in the book is his take on fish and chips, which features tempura battered fish and sweet potato chips, the idea of ‘everything in moderation’ never more prevalent.
There are Thai recipes, picked up from holidays, Japanese dishes from time spent in Tokyo and the rendang curry he had while visiting his best friend’s mum in Singapore.
“I’m very lucky to have seen a lot and absorbed so many different cuisines,” he says. “Chinese food will always be my first love, but I didn’t want the book to be just that. I also wanted to take advantage of how adventurous home cooks are now; 20 years ago, using Lea & Perrins was exotic, now every corner shops sells miso paste, so why not use that? We’re surrounded by different flavours.
“All in all,” he adds. “I’m very proud of myself and the book. There’s something in there for everyone.”
10 minute noodles
n 2tbsp rice bran or vegetable oil
n 300g frozen prawns
n 1 red onion, peeled and roughly sliced into thin wedges
n 4 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely chopped
n 3cm piece of fresh ginger, peeled and finely diced
n 2 fresh red chillies, deseeded and finely sliced (leave in the seeds if you prefer it hotter)
n 80g frozen broad beans
n 80g frozen peas
n 80g drained water chestnuts, roughly chopped
n 350g straight-to-wok thick udon noodles
n 1tbsp light soy sauce
n 1tbsp dark soy sauce
n 2tsp fish sauce
n Lime wedges, to serve
n Sweet chilli sauce, to serve (optional)
Heat half of the oil in a wok over a medium to high heat.
When hot, add the prawns and fry for two to three minutes, stirring every now and then, until they have defrosted and turned a delicious coral colour (they won’t be fully cooked at this point).
Tip the prawns on to a plate and wipe your wok clean with kitchen roll.
Heat the remaining oil in the wok over a medium to high heat. Once hot, fry the onion for one minute before adding the garlic, ginger and chillies.
Stir-fry for a further minute and then return the half-cooked prawns to the wok. Heat through for one to two minutes and then add the beans and peas. Stir-fry the whole lot for a further two to three minutes until everything’s heated through.
Add the remaining ingredients, apart from the lime wedges and sweet chilli sauce, and toss together until well combined.
Serve with lime wedges and chilli sauce, if using.
Thai green curry
n 6 shallots, peeled and roughly chopped
n 10 green bird’s eye chillies (reduce the number of chillies if you don’t like it too hot)
n 50g fresh coriander, stems and all, roughly chopped
n 20g fresh basil, stems and all, roughly chopped
n 2 stalks of lemongrass, trimmed and roughly chopped
n 4cm fresh galangal, peeled and roughly chopped (or 2 heaped tsp from a jar, and if you can’t find galangal, use fresh ginger instead)
n 2 tinned anchovy fillets, drained and roughly chopped
n 5 cloves of garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
n Juice and zest of 1 lime
n 3tbsp fish sauce
n 150g coconut cream
n 400g skinless chicken breast, chopped into bite-sized chunks
n 300g aubergines, trimmed and chopped into bite-sized chunks
n 250ml hot chicken or vegetable stock
n 500g steamed jasmine rice, to serve
n ¼ fresh red chilli, to serve
Blitz the shallots, chillies, coriander, basil, lemongrass, galangal, anchovies, garlic, lime zest and two tablespoons of the fish sauce in a small food processor, until you achieve a fairly smooth paste. (You can also do this with a pestle and mortar.)
Spoon the coconut cream into a wok and heat over a medium to high heat for a couple of minutes; it will melt, boil and then begin to split. When it has split, stir in the curry paste.
Cook for two minutes, stirring frequently.
Add the chicken and aubergines and stir gently for two minutes, by which time they should be well coated in the sauce.
Pour in the hot stock and simmer for about 10 minutes, or until the chicken is cooked through and the aubergine is soft, while still holding its shape.
Serve the curry with freshly steamed jasmine rice sprinkled with chopped red chilli.
Duck and wasabi
n 4 skinless duck legs
n 6tbsp hoisin sauce, shop bought
n 2tbsp (heaped) light mayonnaise
n 2tsp wasabi
n 1tsp rice wine vinegar
n 400g white cabbage, cored and finely shredded
n 2 fresh red chillies, deseeded and finely chopped (leave the seeds in if you prefer it hotter)
n 4 spring onions, trimmed and finely sliced
n 2 carrots, peeled and finely sliced into matchsticks
n ½ cucumber, peeled, deseeded and finely diced
For the buns:
n 6g dried yeast
n 17ml warm water
n 350g plain flour plus more for dusting
n 15g sugar
n ½tsp salt
Make the dough for the buns first, by placing the yeast and water in a bowl, then leave for a few minutes until the yeast has dissolved.
Add the flour, sugar and salt and mix to a tough dough. Remove from the bowl when it’s all come together and knead on a floured surface for five minutes until it’s smooth and stretchy.
Place back in the bowl, cover with cling film or a tea towel and leave in a warm, draught-free place for two hours, or until the dough’s doubled in size.
When doubled, remove the dough from the bowl and knead again, knocking out the air. Then divide into eight equal balls and place in a steamer basket (preferably two steamer baskets, one on top of another) and leave for a further 30 minutes until doubled in size.
Put around 10cm of water in a wok and bring to a boil. Steam the buns over the water (making sure the water doesn’t touch the buns directly) for 20 minutes, by which time they’ll have expanded and cooked through. They’ll be light and fluffy. Keep an eye on the water levels. (If you don’t have a steamer, you can do this with a colander or sieve covered with kitchen foil.)
Now, for the filling. Preheat the oven to 190C.
Cover the duck legs as thoroughly as possible with half of the hoisin sauce. Place the coated legs on a baking tray lined with baking paper and cook in the oven for 25 minutes, by which time they should have darkened slightly in colour and be completely cooked through.
Remove from the oven and leave to cool to room temperature.
Meanwhile, mix together the mayonnaise, wasabi and vinegar. The mayonnaise should turn a satisfying light green colour.
Place the shredded cabbage, chillies, spring onions and carrots in a bowl. Dollop on the fiery mayonnaise and mix until all of the vegetables are lightly coated.
Use your fingers or a couple of forks to pull the meat from the duck legs.
Fill the cooked buns with duck, coleslaw, cucumber and the remaining hoisin sauce. It will get messy.