How Poh Ling Yeow Reconciled His Malaysian Identity Through Food

— Explore the Malaysian flavors of Australia with Adam Liaw and Poh Ling Yeow in Adam & Poh’s Malaysia in Australia, 8:30 p.m. Thursdays on SBS Food and SBS On Demand from October 7, with subtitled versions available to stream on SBS On Demand in Arabic, Simplified Chinese, Traditional Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean. For recipes, articles and more, visit the program page. —

When a boss and a businesswoman Poh Ling Yeow reached her thirties, she felt she had strayed from her Malaysian heritage and turned 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 to dinner with her parents, her great-aunt and her brother was a family ritual and a constant source of comfort. There was always a bowl of rice on the table, along with three to five dishes which they shared around a lazy Susan.

Then they immigrated to Australia.

“Our dinner routine didn’t really change that much when we moved to Australia, except we had to adapt as a lot of the basic Asian ingredients weren’t available,” recalls Poh, who co-hosts the new issue of SBS Food. Adam & Poh’s Malaysia in Australia with chef Adam Liaw.

“We ate 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 to prepare these dishes.”

It was not an option for Poh and his brother to leave the table until they had finished eating. It may have been a source of contention in his youth, but has shaped Poh’s current obsession with sustainable cooking.

“You really enjoyed what was put in front of you and showed gratitude as you finished each piece on your plate. I was told not to leave a single grain of rice behind, and no matter how messy you are. ‘left on the plate was what my husband’s face would look like, ”she laughs.

“I was told not to leave a single grain of rice behind, and whatever mess I left on the plate, it was what my husband’s face would look like.”

Along with rice, dinner usually included a well-balanced distribution of sautéed vegetables, steamed or fried fish, and soup. His great aunt Kim was a devout Buddhist and helped Poh develop an appreciation for this simplistic approach.

“At certain times in the lunar calendar, my Great Aunt Kim would fast and eat vegetarian Buddhist dishes. These were some of my favorite foods growing up,” Poh recalls.

“I would sit with her in the kitchen and she would teach me how to cook all the mock meats. It’s a very simple, very monastic way of eating… and I learned to really appreciate the flavors and the very simple dishes that were made with not a lot of ingredients. “

Poh embraces her great-aunt’s simple food philosophy when cooking solo; she enjoys the challenge of creating recipes that make the basic ingredients shine. His 10-minute silky tofu with caramelized ginger, chili oil, light soybeans and fermented soybeans is a perfect example.

When Poh first started exploring food, his mother and great aunt were his taste testers. Poh’s pursuit of cooking was his attempt to reconcile his Chinese heritage with his Western identity. She had desperately wanted to assimilate as a migrant child in Australia. She wanted to get rid of everything that made her feel different.

“In my early thirties, I suddenly realized that I had lost a lot 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 with.”

Poh is now proud to call herself a fifth generation Chinese Malaysian and is grateful that she has a platform to share this with Australia on. To be crowned a finalist in the first season of MasterChef Australia was a highlight of Poh’s culinary career, but only the beginning of his many accomplishments.

Poh is an author, artist, cooking show host and co-owner of a gourmet market food stall. Jamface. It takes a lot of work to juggle these roles, but she credits her incredible work ethic to her parents.

“It certainly comes from being a migrant and understanding the sacrifices my parents had to make to bring us here for a better education,” she says.

Poh also thanks her mother 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 it was my mom who taught me how to cook,” says Poh. “It’s a very precise method, and I could contain the mess, so it was a really controlled way for me to learn to cook.”

Do you like history? Follow author Melissa Woodley here: Instagram @sporkdiaries.


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