In an exclusive Skype interview with Ipoh-born Catherine Lim Wan Ping - better known as Ping Coombes on Masterchef UK, the popular reality TV series on BBC One - The Star discovers, among other things, how the self-taught 35-year-old cook expressly wanted to showcase Malaysian dishes on the show, almost got booted when judges John Torode and Gregg Wallace thought her "Ipoh chicken rice" was too simple, and most surprisingly, that when she first went to Britain 14 years ago to study, she didn't know how to boil an egg.
Congratulations, Ping, on winning MasterChef UK 2014. How do you feel about it now?
Thank you. I've known about it since January [when the final episode was recorded, broadcast later on May 16] so I've had some time for it to sink in. But the enormity of it hasn't really struck me yet. The support and kindness I've received from the people here and from Malaysia have been great. Looking back, I'm just so glad that I was able to bring Malaysian food to the attention of people in the UK.
Judging from the reactions here, Malaysians are delighted that you won especially because you did it with common Malaysian dishes.
When I went into the show, I said to myself I wanted to showcase the food that I love and grew up with. It's who I am and it's embedded in me. It's my identity. To be able to showcase that on Masterchef UK and for the judges to love it just makes me feel really proud.
So you actually joined the show planning to cook Malaysian food?
Absolutely! Because it's what I love to eat. Me and my husband Andrew [Coombes], although he's British, go back to find ideas and inspiration - and eat! Malaysia has so much food. There's always something new to eat and it's always so tasty. I miss the food back home, there's nothing like it.
It seems to be that way with most Malaysians, that home is where the stomach is.
Yes! Whenever we go back to Malaysia, we make a 'list' of food we must have. There's satay, chicken noodles, 'dao gai min' [apam balik], nasi lemak and, of course, my mum's cooking. We definitely make it a point to go where the food is.
Speaking of home, where is 'home' for you now?
I have three homes actually. Where my husband, daughter and I live, my 'first home', is in Bath, which is two hours away from London. My 'second home' is Ipoh, because that's where my parents are. And my 'third home' is where my in-laws are, because I spend a lot of time there.
There's been a few negative comments on The Star's article about your win - that you're not really Malaysian because you're in the UK. Do you have anything to say about that?
The only thing I can say about that is that I still hold a Malaysian passport, even though I could've chosen to have a British one. I'm holding on to it because I want to come back - not now, but sometime in the future. Being born in Malaysia, I'm Malaysian, no matter where I am.
Please share with us your experience on MasterChef UK.
MasterChef as you know is shot in real time, with real reactions. We get to prepare and practise a little but everything else is done as we're filming. That part of it was quite daunting. But it was also really enjoyable because I got to experience a lot of things that money can't buy. For instance, I can't just walk into a professional kitchen and ask, 'Can I cook here?' The chefs won't allow it. But because MasterChef UK has such influence in the culinary world, we could. Like when we were filming at La Boqueria [a food-market-cum-foodie-heaven in Barcelona, established in the 18th century] and then to have Ferran Adria, who's a national treasure in Spain, taste my cooking - to be able to have those experiences was fantastic.
What was your toughest challenge?
One challenge where I didn't fare that well was the 'chicken' dish. I really wanted to bring a part of me to the competition so when I saw the chicken, all I could think of was 'Ipoh chicken rice'. I do understand the judges' reasoning behind their decision [which almost got her booted]. Compared to my other dishes, it was a bit simple. But I don't regret cooking it at all.
In a more general sense, how have the responses been to your Malaysian dishes in the UK?
Purely from the judges' comments on the show, they love it - the flavours, the cooking methods, the variety. We are a multiracial country, with so many influences from different countries that's allowed us to create flavours with so many layers. It's hard to describe Malaysian cuisine. But you know when you taste it - and it's really delicious.
In other interviews, you've said that you only started cooking while studying at university, which seems quite late to start. Can you tell us more about it?
My mother, like many Asian mums, takes care of all the cooking in the family and is very protective of her kitchen. I was lazy too when I was younger so I was more than happy to leave the cooking up to her. But when I moved here to study [14 years ago at the age of 21], like most Malaysians overseas, I had a craving for mum's food. That was when I started cooking. But I didn't know how to boil an egg. I had to learn quickly. So my mum and I would have long conversations over the phone and I learned to cook like that.
You didn't know how to boil an egg?
No. [Laughs.] But cooking an egg can be a very temperamental process because it really depends on the egg's freshness, temperature, etc. There's also how you cook it. It's a total science.
That just sounds incredible - from not knowing how to boil an egg to winning MasterChef UK.
The UK is a country that really champions culinary techniques and skills. There are really good restaurants in London and throughout the country, a lot of cookery shows and books. Dining out here is very different from in Malaysia, where food is more of a social thing - you go out for yumcha, hang out with friends after partying, sit outside and eat satay. Over here, it's more formal, more about international cuisine. I think these contrasting experiences have helped me think of ways to fuse those two things together.
That's very apparent from the photos of your winning dishes, especially your version of 'wantan sup', which looks nothing like what you'd find in a typical Malaysian kopitiam. How did you come up with that?
I've always been interested in what other people are doing with food. Every time I go somewhere new, I take a look and make a note of it - take a photo or write it down. This competition has really taught me to think outside the box - being in Spain really opened up my creativity. Of course, things don't always work out. The first time I made the wantan sup, it wasn't so good. But making mistakes helps me realise how to improve on it. And when it finally works, it's fantastic.
From what we've been able to glean of your dishes on MasterChef UK, you seem to have a Malaysian-meets-Western fusion approach. Is that something that you'll be exploring further?
Definitely, but it wouldn't be my main thing. I can definitely think of dishes from other countries that I could fuse with Malaysian food. But the fundamental things, like the Malaysian flavours, I wouldn't change. If I could open a restaurant here, I would focus more on the social side of the Malaysian experience - like how we eat by the roadside. I would love to bring that aspect to the UK.
All these years you've been experimenting at home with your family as your test lab - how has that factored into your culinary journey?
My husband is my biggest critic. He's eaten a lot of Malaysian food, so he knows the flavours. Because he's a keen cook as well, he'd tell me things like 'This is not right', or 'This is how I think you can make it better'. More importantly, he eats. He's my 'customer' so to speak. I don't think things would've worked out as well if I had met someone who didn't like food.
What's the one dish that you know like the back of your hand and is sure to be a hit at dinner?
Normally, I would make Curry Kapitan. It's such a fresh curry and it's a great introduction to Malaysian flavours - it's got galangal, lemongrass, tamarind and a bit of coconut milk. Another dish that I love, though not always a crowd pleaser, is sambal hati using chicken livers. I particularly love eating it with my hands, like how we do back home.
What have you been up to since MasterChef UK 2014 ended?
I've been doing a lot of media interviews. But what I'm really looking forward to is being part of MasterChef Restaurant & Bar, a month-long pop-up restaurant in London featuring food made by past MasterChef UK contestants. Luke Owen, Jack Lucas [her co-finalists] and I will kick off the first week this September. Apart from that, I'm just working out what kind of career in food I want. But I still have a lot to learn. I wouldn't call myself a chef. I'm a relatively good cook but that's about it.
Would you consider coming back to Malaysia if there was an opportunity here for you to pursue a career in food?
My parents are there and any chance to go back for an extended period while still being able to pursue my love of cooking would be fantastic. But there are opportunities here in the UK also. Ideally, I'd like to be able to run between both countries. So yes, if there's a good opportunity, I'd definitely consider it.