Thinking Allowed

By Mariam Mokhtar

Although Catherine Chin Wan Ping Coombes, an avid viewer of the MasterChef television show, likes cooking and experimenting with different cuisines, entering the competition had never crossed her mind.

After being made redundant, a close friend of the 32-two-year old, sent her a MasterChef application form and Ping, as she is affectionately called by her friends, convinced herself, that she had nothing to lose and that entering the competition would help boost her spirits, and her confidence. Winning was the last thought on her mind.  

Ping, who now lives in Bath, England, went to school at the Ipoh Convent and did her sixth form at St Michael’s Institution, in Ipoh. Ironically, this MasterChef winner had no idea how to cook, when she went to Oxford Brookes University, to do Hotel and Restaurant Management. She was 21 at the time and had to contact her mother, for advice on cooking.

She cast her mind back to her university days and said, “My first attempt at university was chicken leg wrapped in bacon. It turned out raw!"

The end of September is when new undergraduates traditionally enrol at university in the United Kingdom. Thousands of students, including Malaysians, will be starting their three years away from home. Some of them will be like Ping, who when she was a student, did not know how to cook. Some will make ambitious attempts at cooking their favourite foods and may be frustrated when the dish turns out horribly wrong. A few will be put off cooking.

Ping’s advice to these students is simple; “Try stir fries, as they are quick and cheap. Nowadays, Youtube and Google will show you how to cook, simply. I learnt a lot from these online channels.”

The win has catapulted Ping to stardom, and today her life revolves around shows, cooking, entertaining and her family. She is the mother of a two-year-old daughter, Alexa, and her husband Andrew, runs his e-commerce company called Concrete Studios.

Andrew has admitted that he is often the guinea pig for her dishes, but he is no stranger to Malaysian cooking. Before they met, Andrew spent his Gap year travelling around Malaysia, and sampled many types of Malaysian food.

She said, “It wasn’t until Andrew met me that he started to discover a whole new range of dishes. Now, he has so many favourites, like satay, popiah, prawn mee, peanut pancake...I could go on and on.”

When asked if there was any food he dislikes, she said, “He eats everything, except durian and rojak!”

At home, Ping cooks a mixture of European and Asian food. She said, “I am rarely at home, nowadays, but when I am, I cook. I also do a lot of entertaining. We are known as the Pings to our friends, who dine with us.”

Some people break up under pressure but those who watched Ping cut, cook and ‘chase the clock’, in the television show, marvelled at how calm and unruffled she appeared.

When asked if she had a particular technique for keeping her cool, she said, “I am not sure really. I just take a deep breath, and the fact that I didn't enter with the intention of winning, helped tremendously.

“I treated every round as if it were a bonus round, hence, I didn’t feel pressured. Also, I think secretly, I thrive in a high pressure environment.”

If people want a touch of nostalgia, or if they are feeling depressed, some of their favourite comfort food will help them feel better. Ping’s choice is simple, “My comfort foods are a bowl of pork noodles and roast duck rice.”

Malaysian dishes usually contain a variety of herbs, spices and condiments. In England, a big supermarket or a local Chinese or Indian grocer will normally stock the main ingredients for common Asian dishes.

Ping has not encountered any problems in sourcing the ingredients and said, “All the herbs and spices, used in my cooking are easily available in Bath. I don't cook anything I can't find in England.”

Her neighbours and friends were thrilled to have a MasterChef champion in their community. She said, “They were very supportive and the kids in the neighbourhood often shouted, 'I saw you on tele'.”

Having been away from Malaysia for over a decade, Ping, like many Malaysian expats, has a “ritual”, when returning home, to visit family. She said, “Yes you are right we have a ritual. Andrew and I tick off the list as we go along. Generally this begins before we get on the plane.

“The ‘must haves’ are ‘pork noodles’, at the stalls near the Stadium. I can’t remember the name of the stall, but it is next to the soya bean place. The stall sells a lot of other noodles, as well. Then it is satay, popiah, tai gau min (peanut pancakes), Ipoh white coffee and kaya toast, 'Ngap geok pau' duck's feet, Old Town chicken noodles, I could go on...”

After winning MasterChef, Ping has had to juggle life as a mother to a young child, a wife and MasterChef celebrity. She is kept busy with cooking programmes, interviews and road shows.

She takes it all in her stride and said, “Yes, it is hard, but I love my life right now. I have dreamed of this for years. I have a very supportive husband and family, they enable me to pursue a career that I love, so I am a very lucky woman.”

Behind every successful woman, is a mother. Ping attributes her success to her parents and in particular, her mother. She said, “I want to pay tribute to my mum, who is the main inspiration for my success. My upbringing, and my parents’ constant support, has helped me get to where I am, today.”

When asked if she had any plans for a restaurant or a cookbook, Ping was delighted that there were ‘lots of exciting things about to happen’. She said, “I am in the middle of writing a recipe book, and the business plan for a Malaysian café, in Bath.”

Many Malaysian households have both a wet and dry kitchen. The dry kitchen is usually reserved for western food, whilst the wet kitchen is where the smelly Malaysian dishes, like those containing belacan, are cooked. 

When asked how she copes with “smelly” foods, she said, “I only have one kitchen, as our weather won't permit wet kitchens. When I cook strong smelling foods, I open all the windows, turn the air ventilation to maximum and close the kitchen door to the rest of the house. And I always have a bottle of Oust (an odour eliminator)!