What is your earliest memory in the kitchen?
Helping to cook and then eating Buddhist vegetarian food with my Great Aunty Kim. It’s where my love of tofu began and when I learnt lots of interesting things like how to make mock meat from gluten. My Mum only allowed me to help in the kitchen when I was much older, around 9, and it was confined to baking. Even when I was way too little to help, most of my days were spent in the kitchen with our housekeeper, ‘big sister’ Kim Lian, and my Great Aunty Kim. I remember finding even the most menial kitchen tasks like dishwashing mesmerising.
How have things changed for you since appearing on MasterChef?
Well, my wish to make a living in the food industry came true in the most spectacular way. I’ve had my own cooking show Poh’s Kitchen on ABC for three seasons and my life is incredibly hectic. Unfortunately, my art, which was a full time career before Masterchef, is now something I only practise for about three to four months out of every year but I’ve made sure I hold a solo exhibition annually otherwise I would go insane without the solitude. It’s also very nice to be friends with chefs I used to only be able to admire through the small screen.
You have had quite an interesting life! We are actually writing a story about religion and how growing up in a certain faith environment can shape the rest of your life. Would you say yours was shaped by your faith?
Most certainly. I was brought up Buddhist but my family converted to Mormonism (Church of Latter Day Saints) in my teens. Although I left the church in my mid 20’s and am now an agnostic, I often reflect on the fact that I’m grateful for the experiences I had growing up with both religions because it gives me a deeper understanding and respect for those who do hold to a faith. It’s not useful to be a fundamentalist at either end of the spectrum and I am very opposed to those who are misguided to think any god would condone violence or aggression against their fellow man. For a while I considered myself an atheist but since neither the existence or non-existence of a God can be proven, it is best to practise tolerance.
What is the biggest misconception about Malaysian food?
I think it’s more of a general problem that Asian cuisines are often seen as homogenous when of course they all have unique characteristics, just as all European cuisines differ. The main issue with Malaysian food is that most Aussies have tried or even love it but don’t identify it as Malaysian. The confusion comes from the fact that Malaysian cuisine is such an eclectic mash of Malay, Chinese and Indian cuisines. All three cultures have lived alongside one another for a long time so the cuisines have genuinely fused but there are dishes which are very singular; very Malay, very Chinese or atypically Indian that would be considered definitively Malaysian dishes. For instance, chicken rice of course originates from Hunan in China, but is still considered a very Malaysian dish. We’ve put a mild spin with the addition of a garlic chilli sauce to accompany the traditional ginger and spring onion one and sometimes kecap manis is drizzled over the chicken.
You are an artist as well as a cook; how do these two marry for you?
Very well! I’ve always loved both and I find the process of inventing a dish or conceptualising a painting very similar. I think of ingredients in the same way I think of colour. It’s funny, when I paint I often think about things I want to cook and vice versa.
What five ingredients should we always keep in the pantry if we want to whip up a last-minute Malaysian dish?
Belacan, dried chillies, garlic, red eschallots and dried shrimp.
On Poh’s Kitchen Lends A Hand, the world was introduced to the humanitarian side of you. How important is giving back to the community to your work?
I think it’s very important. Life is meaningless if you can’t turn to those less fortunate than you and show some empathy. It feels like the world is beginning to reacquaint itself with the concept of community and how valuable it is for mental health and general wellness. I think technology, with all its conveniences have turned us into less tolerant, more impatient and less social beings. It’s hugely important to live life with a full sense of gratitude and nothing will make you feel this more than helping someone in need.
What are your favourite Malaysian restaurants to dine at across the country?
Hands down, my Mum’s place. Between her and my Great Aunty Kim, I get very spoilt.
What else is coming up for you?
I’ve been doing a lot of food festivals, including Taste of Melbourne and Sydney for Malaysia Kitchen, which has been fabulous – to see what different parts of Australia have offer in terms of produce and be able to work with wonderful chefs. I’m at the tail end of finishing my second book, which has lots of my favourite Malaysian recipes in it too. It’s called Same Same But Different and will be out in time for Mother’s Day 2014. I’ve got a couple of major exhibitions coming up and lots of exciting things in the pipeline that I can’t quite talk about yet.