Poh Ling Yeow, may be Australia’s most well-known and admired Malaysian-born cooks, but she hasn’t always been the Poh we know and love.
In fact, she used to go by one of the most Aussie names of all: Sharon.
It was this identity that you could say was the trigger that pushed Poh towards her career as a cook (which she prefers to be called rather than a chef).
Back in her early thirties Poh, aka Sharon, was your average Australian woman who had emigrated from Malaysia, aged 9, who always tried to fit in.
As a child she remembers just wanting to be like all the other kids.
“I did such a great job of shedding everything that made me feel different that in my early thirties I had nothing,” she recalls. Until one day, “I actually got a little bit scared”.
“I thought if I have children I have nothing of my heritage to pass on to them and so I thought I really need to reconnect with my culture. And food is such a natural fit for me, I love cooking, I’m just so driven with food. So I felt like I really needed to pursue that in a serious way.”
And so she did. Poh was back, and had something to prove.
Studying laksa after laksa, and every Rendang recipe she could get her hands on, Poh started to experiment with the flavours of her childhood, testing and changing to create new Malaysian recipes.
But she admits starting out she didn’t always get it right.
“I grew up in Australia, I cook like an Australian. I need a recipe.”
That’s not the way Malays cook.
“Women often stay at home and watch the way your mum or grandma cooks and learn everything by sight and taste, and it’s all just guess-timating. So I missed out on that education,” she says.
When started creating her own dishes and triallined new flavour combinations, everything was always critiqued by the “royal taste testers” – her mum and great aunt, Kim.
“They’d say no, no you didn’t put enough turmeric in that or not enough galangal,” said Poh. The feedback continued until she got it just right.
Had it not been for Sharon, and Poh’s sense of disconnect from her heritage, this MasterChef contestant may never have made her mark on the Australian culinary world – and open Australia’s eyes to the endless variety of the Malaysian cuisine.
While Australia still has some catching up to do in terms of having Malaysia food widely available and appreciated, Poh understands that it can be hard cuisine to define.
As Indians and Chinese moved to Malaysia over the years, the food became a fusion of the three cultures, making it harder for outsiders to know what was is typical Malaysian food.
“I guess the thing that confuses people is that… you find dishes that are singularly Chinese or Indian or Malay, but [here] it still very much considered Malaysian.”
For example, what might seem to be a very Chinese-looking dish has stock base or sauce with Malay spices.
“It can be a very small thing that can contribute to it being that fusion.”
“I still think it’s very much a minority cuisine (in Australia), people still don’t know that much about it. I think when people start getting it regularly for takeaway you kind of know it’s on the mass conscience. When you ask people about what you define as Malaysian food, most people have no idea. Most people think laksa is Thai, but it’s actually Malaysian.”
It’s all about the food
For Malaysians, like Italians, the most important thing about food is that it brings people together.
“Malaysian culture is 90% about their food. You go to breakfast and talk about what you’re going to have for lunch. You go to lunch and you talk about what you’re going to have for dinner,” Poh explained.
“I always say it’s the ultimate democratic cuisine because no-one cares what the place looks like. Outside you will see bikes, Mercs, everything and that is the thing that is so awesome about Malaysian food. It’s all about the food. There’s nothing in the way of being seen, and I just love that.”
While there, Poh makes sure she eats as much as she can.
“I’m like a camel, I eat as much as I can, I store it up, remember the goodness and take it home.”
For this reason she said it’s hard to choose her favourite restaurant or hangout in Kuala Lumpur, but did say when it comes to eating your way around the city it’s not about just dining out at the restaurants as much as it’s about getting amongst the night markets and the street food. Her advice: “Just try everything.”
The difficult task ahead
I was travelling through Kuala Lumpur with Poh – the newest ambassador for Malaysia Airlines – as part of a tour of the city organised by he national carrier.
Poh, who has created a Nyonya chicken curry for the airline, said you just have to be here to see the people and the airline has struggled in 2014 after two tragedies with MH17 and MH370.
“Everyone has lost a friend,” she said.
She was asked to collaborate with the airline in January, but the accidents happened. She’s very conscious some will think the partnership is an effort to distract.
“I feel a little bit on the defense, because I think a lot of people assume that I have been wheeled in to be a visual band-aid,” she said. “It’s a very, very authentic affiliation – it’s the airline I grew up with, it’s the one I associate with Malaysia.”
But she knows that now it’s a difficult task.
“You have to be respectful for the people who have suffered and you don’t want to trivialise what’s happened. It’s a tricky position to be in. But at the same time we have to find ways to move on.”
Coming to Malaysia on this trip has reinforced her reasons for taking up the role. Poh said she would never attach herself to brand if she couldn’t talk about outside of work and wasn’t sincerely passionate about it.
So how did she decide Nyonya chicken curry was the dish she’d give the airline for business class passengers? (Economy passengers can get it too if the pre-order online).
“It’s a special occasion dish… in that it appears at every celebration, every birthday, every time we get together – it is the definitive dish,” she said.
“It has a very much loved place in our family. So much so that at Christmas it sits next to the ham. It’s just a dish that we can’t live without.”
She said she also wanted it to be a dish that everyone – Australian and Malaysian – could enjoy.
“I really wanted it to be a comfort dish, I didn’t want anything that was trying too hard to be exotic or too interesting… it’s just such a classic Malaysian dish.”
“It’s the perfect representation of Malaysia, without challenging people too much.”
Poh said Australians who may be concerned with coming to Malaysia, or flying Malaysia Airlines just need to be aware it was two very random events and that there is really so many wonderful reasons to come and explore Kuala Lumpur.
“The thing I find really beautiful about coming here is that the locals are so friendly. They all speak English and they’re really relaxed and all willing to help… so you’ll find it incredibly easy to get around,” she said.
“If you want to experience an Asian culture… and you love your food it’s a really great spot.”
Poh’s signature dish will be available to business class passengers from December.
*The writer was a guest on a trip from Sydney to Kuala Lumpur with Malaysia Airlines.
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