--- Explore Australia's Malaysian flavours with Adam Liaw and Poh Ling Yeow in Adam & Poh's Malaysia in Australia, 8.30pm Thursdays on SBS Food and SBS On Demand from 7 October, with subtitled versions available to stream on SBS On Demand in Arabic, Simplified Chinese, Traditional Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean. For recipes, articles and more head to the program page. ---
When chef and businesswoman Poh Ling Yeow reached her 30s, she felt she'd strayed from her Malaysian heritage and looked to food as a way to reconnect.
Poh had a conservative upbringing in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, where she lived for nine years. Sitting down for dinner with her parents, great aunty and brother was a family ritual and constant source of comfort. There was always a bowl of rice on the table, along with three to five dishes that they'd share around a lazy Susan.
Then they immigrated to Australia.
"Our dinner routine didn't really change much when we moved to Australia, except that we had to adapt because a lot of basic Asian ingredients weren't available," recalls Poh, who co-hosts SBS Food's new show Adam & Poh's Malaysia in Australia with chef Adam Liaw.
"We ate out a lot in Malaysia because of the street food culture, so when we moved here, we also did a lot more home cooking because that was the only way we could have those dishes."
It was not an option for Poh and her brother to leave the dinner table before they'd finished their food. This may have been a source of contention in her youth but has shaped Poh's current obsession with sustainable cooking.
"You definitely appreciated what'd been put in front of you and showed gratitude by finishing every morsel on your plate. I was told not to leave even one grain of rice behind, and whatever mess I left on the plate was what my husband's face would look like," she laughs.
"I was told not to leave even one grain of rice behind, and whatever mess I left on the plate was what my husband's face would look like."
Along with rice, dinner typically included a well-balanced spread of stir-fried vegetables, steamed or fried fish and soup. Her great aunt Kim was a staunch Buddhist and helped Poh develop an appreciation for this simplistic approach.
"At certain times in the lunar calendar, my great aunty Kim would fast and eat Buddhist vegetarian foods. They were some of my favourite dishes growing up," Poh reflects.
"I would sit with her in the kitchen, and she would teach me how to make all the mock meats. It's a very simple, very monastic way to eat…and I learned to really appreciate very simple flavours and dishes that were made with not many ingredients."
Poh embraces her great aunt's simple food philosophy when cooking solo; she loves the challenge of creating recipes that make basic ingredients shine. Her 10-minute silken tofu with caramelised ginger, chilli oil, light soy and fermented soybeans is a perfect example of this.
When Poh began exploring food, her mum and great aunt were her taste testers. Poh's cooking pursuit was her attempt to reconcile her Chinese heritage with her Western identity. She'd been desperate to assimilate as a child migrant in Australia. She wanted to shed everything that made her feel different.
"In my early 30s, I suddenly realised that I'd lost so much of my culture and that my identity was so Australian," Poh recalls. "Food was one of the only things in my adult life that I still had a strong connection to."
Poh is now proud to call herself a fifth-generation Chinese Malaysian and is grateful that she has a platform on which to share this with Australia. Being crowned runner-up on season one of MasterChef Australia was a highlight of Poh's food career, but only the start of her many achievements.
Poh is an author, artist, cooking-show host and co-owner of gourmet market food stall Jamface. It takes hard work to juggle these roles, but she attributes her incredible work ethic to her parents.
"That definitely comes from being a migrant and understanding the sacrifices my parents had to make to bring us over here for a better education," she says.
Poh also credits her mum for teaching her the importance of attention to detail, which she applies when developing new jam, cake or pastry recipes for Jamface.
"Baking was really my first love and mum was the one that taught me how to bake," Poh says. "It's a very precise method, and I could contain the mess, so it was a really controlled way for me to learn how to cook."
Love the story? Follow the author Melissa Woodley here: Instagram @sporkdiaries.
Poh uses pre-toasted belacan for her spicy sambal. She cooks lobster pieces directly in the fresh sambal for maximum flavour.
Poh puts all the hard work of Adam's seafood catch into a luxurious version of her family's lo mein recipe. Feel free to sub abalone for your seafood of choice.
Poh creates an Asian version of macarons with these chewy rainbow-coloured Malaysian snacks featuring surprise fillings.