Neighbourhood Woks… Interviewing Ping Coombes
Her daringly delicious fusion of traditional Malaysian cuisine with western dishes – dubbed techno-tropical by judge Gregg Wallace – saw Ping Coombes storm to success as winner of MasterChef 2014. Here the Bath-based chef tells Compass editor Jennifer Cox about her passion for Malaysian flavours, and how her mum finally takes her seriously in the kitchen.
Jennifer Cox: You’ve just got back from visiting your family in Ipoh, Malaysia. That’s a little-known foodie hotspot isn’t it?
Ping Coombes: Yes. When it comes to Malaysian food, George Town in Penang gets all the attention. It is a beautiful Unesco-listed site up on Malaysia’s north-eastern coast, full of beautiful colonial architecture and with a lovely beach. Wonderful old buildings, coffee shops, amazing street food … everything is concentrated in one small area and visitors see it as a one-stop shop. Ipoh, on the other hand, has almost been forgotten about, I guess because it doesn’t have any specific sights. What it does have is scenery. All Malaysia is green, but Ipoh particularly so because the whole area is surrounded by limestone caves, making the soil and water very pure and rich in minerals. Everything grows well here, which is just one reason why Ipoh has a huge variety of seriously good Malaysian food.
JC: Why is Malaysian cuisine suddenly so popular?
PC: It’s the diversity, and I don’t mean that in the trendy way: we Malaysians have always lived and eaten as a multicultural society. The rise in popularity also coincides with people wanting to try a lot more food. In the western world we’re used to having one dish – a main course, or starter – in front of us, but in Malaysia we share food so order many, many different dishes at once. The basic root of our culture and cuisine is Chinese, Indian and Malay. But on top of that we are influenced by flavours and cooking styles from our neighbours, so Thai and Vietnamese, as well as the Malay tribes. It never ends. You can go to a roadside stop and there’ll be hundreds of different food stalls, each specialising in one dish. You don’t know where to start, so you order loads of different things to try. A staple is nasi kandar, a plate of rice served with 20 to 30 different dishes – from fish to seafood, meat and eggs – all in different sauces or curries. Then you might go to a Chinese stall and have a bowl of noodles with pork or seafood. Even noodles have hundreds of different variations. Then there’s Indian, where you have flatbread griddled in front of you, or back to Malay where you’ll find nasi lemak, coconut-flavoured rice … there are so many different dishes to choose from, all of them good.
JC: I can understand why you got involved with eating, but how did you get involved with cooking?
PC: Malays, we love to eat: we talk about food as soon as we wake up. My mum is a fantastic cook, because her mum is a fantastic cook. I got interested later in life. When I came to the UK I had to fend for myself, so started by experimenting with Italian food, then Spanish. It wasn’t until I moved to Bath that I realised if I wanted good Malaysian food, I was going to have to cook it myself. I started by experimenting with nasi lemak. It’s the dish I won the final of MasterChef with, so has great meaning to me. I love eating it and it’s the national dish of Malaysia.
JC: Your mum seems very territorial about her kitchen, banning you from it when she was cooking. Was she surprised that you turned out to be such a good cook?
PC: She was. Although we always talked about food, I don’t think she truly believed I was into it until I won MasterChef. Now, when she makes something at home, she’ll say: “I want you to look at how I’m doing this.”
JC: Do you allow your daughter in the kitchen?
PC: Yes, she loves it. She always wants to see what I am doing, which is quite annoying as she stands in front of the stove because that’s where I stand.
JC: You won MasterChef in 2014, the 10th winner. How was it competing on the programme?
PC: I’ve always been a fan, but never thought I’d go on it. It’s not until you get there that you realise how nervewracking it really is. There is a sea of stressed faces, all feeling the same way (though you get one or two people that are overconfident). But I was very lucky as there were also a lot of fantastic people in my group, and we’ve stayed friends.
JC: All that stress, pressure, singlemindedness … what lesson did you learn winning MasterChef?
PC: I learned that when you’re pushed to the limit of something you’re passionate about, you deliver. I surprised myself with what I could do, and that made me feel good. It still makes me feel confident. Now, whenever I think ‘I can’t do this’, I remember I can. I watched the final for the first time last week, because it was showing as inflight entertainment on a plane. It was strange, like it wasn’t me.
JC: You likened the experience of winning MasterChef to giving birth to your daughter.
PC: Yes, because you’re excited, but at the same time you’re scared at what the future will hold.
JC: And so far what has the future held, what has life been like since winning MasterChef?
PC: It’s been crazy. I’ve flown to Malaysia, Hong Kong, Davos … showcasing my cooking and Malaysian cuisine. These opportunities would never have come my way if I hadn’t won.
JC: Now the new series of MasterChef is showing, do you feel you have to grab these opportunities while you still have the chance?
PC: Yes. The first year you are bombarded. I have taken a lot of opportunities that don’t pay much, but the experience has been incredible. I want to try everything so I know what I like doing and – as importantly – what I don’t like doing. In the next year I need to be more organised: I am writing a book, opening a restaurant and I will be on stalls selling signature dishes at food festivals.
With Cox & Kings, Ping Coombes has created the perfect introductory culinary tour to Malaysia. MasterChef Travel’s Malaysia: A Culinary Melting Pot costs from £2,175 per person, including international flights. This 11-day trip travels to Malacca, Kuala Lumpur, the Cameron Highlands and Penang. Sample authentic dishes, learn to cook local specialities, visit spice gardens and tea plantations, and absorb the exotic sounds and smells of the night markets.
To discover Ping Coombe’s recipes, cooking tips or get the latest information on her food fairs and popups, visit pingspantry.co.uk.
Image of Ping Coombes copyright of Lisa Hounsome.