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 deeply-rooted 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 on June 19, 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. “Mum 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 off-screen. Both would like to open their own restaurants – Tiong with a restaurant where the traditional and the modern can happily co-exist, and Chan with an eatery emphasising “healthy, beautiful, honest food – and possibly something combining my passion for food and travel.”
* There have been several other contestants on MasterChef Australia with Malaysian ties, including Season 1 runner-up Poh Ling Yeow, and Season 2 winner Adam Liaw.
MasterChef Australia Season Nine (Astro ) airs at 8pm from Monday to Friday on Lifetime (Astro Channel 709)