Wo­ven with spices and herbs

MasterChef Aus­tralia Sea­son Nine’s Sarah Tiong and Diana Chan both have strong ties to Malaysia.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Taste - By SUZANNE LAZA­ROO star2@thes­tar.com.my

THE spirit of Malaysian gas­tro­nomic cul­ture is wo­ven with spices and herbs, em­broi­dered with a myr­iad cul­tural in­flu­ences, stud­ded with mem­o­ries of fam­ily meals and fes­tive cel­e­bra­tions. And it’s deeply­rooted in the culi­nary souls of two of the top 24 con­tes­tants of the brand-new MasterChef Aus­tralia Sea­son Nine.

When the new sea­son pre­mieres on Life­time to­mor­row, view­ers will meet a whole new bunch of cheer­fully de­ter­mined home cooks look­ing to make their mark on the Aus­tralian gas­tro­nomic land­scape – among them, Sarah Tiong and Diana Chan, both of whom have Malaysian ties that bind.

Risk con­sul­tant Tiong, 25, was born in Syd­ney – but her par­ents are from Sibu, in Sarawak. “My par­ents grew up in a small vil­lage there, so they were used to fresh in­gre­di­ents and sim­ple dishes and their style of cooking has re­ally in­flu­enced me,” she said, in a phone in­ter­view.

Tiong started cooking for her loved ones when she was 15, de­vel­op­ing her own recipes at just 17. In 2013, she grad­u­ated with de­grees in Ac­tu­ar­ial Stud­ies and Law from Syd­ney’s Mac­quarie Univer­sity.

From the Sarawak laksa of her mother’s kitchen to the gath­er­ings of her tight-knit ex­tended fam­ily in Malaysia when she vis­its home and her com­fort foods of murtabak and nonya cui­sine – they have all proved pow­er­ful shapers of Tiong’s cooking.

“I’m a very emo­tional per­son, and I tend to trans­late my sen­ti­men­tal­ity in the kitchen. This ap­proach, draw­ing on my par­ents’ in­flu­ence, gives me strength,” said Tiong. She en­joys draw­ing con­nec­tions be­tween the food of her par­ents’ home and her own take, “a more el­e­gant, mod­ern spin.”

Tiong is an in­sulin-de­pen­dent di­a­betic, which proved a chal­lenge on the show. “My blood su­gar is very volatile, so tast­ing my food on the show could be a bit tricky,” she said. “But we have an on-site nurse, and she re­ally looked after me, so it all worked out.”

Chan is a 29-year-old ac­coun­tant from Vic­to­ria, who grew up in Jo­hor Baru. “Mom was al­ways an amaz­ing cook, she cooked a lot of Per­anakan food – used a lot of herbs and ulam – and she baked a lot as well. Dad was all about out­door bar­be­cues and Can­tonese food.”

When she was 17, she moved to Kuala Lumpur to fur­ther her stud­ies; two years later, Chan moved to Mel­bourne to study Com­merce at Deakin Univer­sity. It was in Mel­bourne that Chan dis­cov­ered the farm­ers’ mar­kets that spurred on her love of fresh, or­ganic pro­duce.

Chan’s own cooking style bears echoes of her mother’s use of greens and herbs in her kitchen and her fa­ther’s love of seafood.

The ladies agree that the ca­ma­raderie on­screen is very much a case of what you see is what you get. “It’s gen­uine, and that’s rare when you have a bunch of strangers hav­ing to share such close quar­ters for an ex­tended time,” said Tiong.

“We even cooked for each other ev­ery night, with each room tak­ing turns to make din­ner,” said Chan. “We were very am­bi­tious at the start of the com­pe­ti­tion, but after a while, meals were more about sim­ple, lovely, home-cooked food.”

“Just get­ting an apron and get­ting into the top 24 has al­ready been an ad­ven­ture, get­ting to be in the MasterChef kitchen with my idols like Yo­tam Ot­tolenghi and Ben Shewry,” said Tiong.

“Just be­ing on the show has changed me, be­ing able to have ac­cess to all these great chefs, help­ing me to un­der­stand in­gre­di­ents bet­ter. Yo­tam was a real in­spi­ra­tion, he re­ally opened our eyes to beau­ti­ful veg­eta­bles and how you can have just one in­gre­di­ent and re­ally re­spect it,” said Chan.

“I par­tic­u­larly like mys­tery box chal­lenges, be­cause they re­ally re­flect who we are as cooks. And they pro­vide so much in­spi­ra­tion for view­ers too, be­cause it’s like open­ing your fridge, and see­ing what you can whip up from there.”

Some of her favourite ex­pe­ri­ences on the show have been a road trip with an uber-fa­mous celebrity chef – that re­ally opened her eyes to lo­cal Aus­tralian pro­duce – and a sur­prise trip over­seas that ex­posed con­tes­tants to Ja­pan’s culi­nary cul­ture, one of the most ex­cit­ing in the world.

Both Chan and Tiong are hold­ing strong in the com­pe­ti­tion, which is cur­rently air­ing on Net­work Ten in Aus­tralia. Re­gard­less of who is crowned Aus­tralia’s new­est MasterChef, both are de­ter­mined to pur­sue their culi­nary pas­sions off­screen. Both would like to open their own restau­rants – Tiong with a restau­rant where the tra­di­tional and the mod­ern can hap­pily co­ex­ist, and Chan with an eatery em­pha­sis­ing “healthy, beau­ti­ful, hon­est food – and pos­si­bly some­thing com­bin­ing my pas­sion for food and travel.”

MasterChef Aus­tralia Sea­son Nine (As­tro ) airs at 8pm from Mon­day to Fri­day on Life­time (As­tro Chan­nel 709)

Tiong (left) and Chan cook side by side in the MasterChef kitchen.

— Pho­tos: Life­time Asia

Beef with Onion and Fen­nel Sauce.

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