Poh Ling Yeow rules. She absolutely rules. And as gutted as I am over her MasterChef elimination, I can’t help but feel grateful for everything she has given us this season.
It’s hard to put into words what Poh’s time on commercial TV meant to me – a Chinese-Indonesian Australian, born here, but made to feel otherwise sometimes. Poh brought such warmth to the show, and such representation. I could relate to her and my mum could relate to her.
Mum is a really big fan of MasterChef, she comments on the show’s Facebook page all the time. One time this season, my mum shared her own Indonesian dish on a post celebrating one of Poh’s dishes. That’s the first time she’s done that. It might sound like nothing to you, but it made me feel really, really happy and proud. We sat together and I proof-read her comment, because even though she moved to Australia decades ago, there are still a couple of words that she trips over.
Anyway, controversial opinion here, but I love that Poh is so, so, so chaotic.
I mean, it was exhausting to watch her at times. She made my ass sweat from stress. But it was refreshing to watch an Asian woman – an Asian person – not visibly have their shit together all the time.
When I was in high school I was terrified of making mistakes, of showing weakness. I wasn’t very confident either. I spent too much time trying to fit in, to be composed, and to always do well. Because of stereotypes, because of what was reflected back to us from minor characters in film and TV, I learnt to be quiet, to be a minor character in my own story. I wasn’t myself in high school, I just played a part.
These are the sorts of things that ran through my head when I saw Poh on TV every night. She was so… different to what I was used to seeing onscreen. Here was this unapologetically loud Asian woman, a brilliant cook and artist, who dared to be vulnerable on TV. On Australian TV, no less. Discussions about genuine representation might make some people roll their eyes, but it’s something we need to keep talking about if mainstream channels still plug racists like Pauline Hanson for profit.
It was incredibly validating hearing Poh speak honestly about growing up Asian in Australia.
In last week’s mystery box challenge, the one inspired by colours, Poh essentially cooked the judges a Malaysian banquet. She whipped up Nyonya chicken curry with nasi ulam, fried whitebait and roti. Poh didn’t whitewash it or make it more palatable for the judges or wider audience. She made it the way she always has, and it carried meaning. So. Much. Meaning. Love, soul, history.
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Wow, what a night, cooking my Nyonya chicken curry, nasi ulam (herbed coconut shrimp rice), fried fresh whitebait, red onion soy lime chilli relish, roti chanai. This is the magic of recipes, they take on a life of their own, shaped by the hands of every custodian they have passed through and even after eons of time travelling, the intent is still felt. Thank you @zonfrillo @andyallencooks and especially @fooderati for giving me a moment that felt bigger than me – the reason why cultural dishes just float my boat @masterchefau #masterchef #masterchefau #malaysianfood #nyonyacuisine
During the cook, Poh explained what cooking Malaysian dishes meant to her.
“I realised I had let go of so much of my culture trying to assimilate as a migrant kid, that I had to find that thing that reconnected me again,” she said. “And food became that thing.”
That hit me like a tonne of bricks.
I can’t speak my parents’ language fluently, because I was too ashamed to learn it when I was a kid. About a year ago I downloaded Duolingo to learn Indonesian. Learning the language is my “thing” now. I didn’t realise it was my thing – I didn’t realise why I was doing it – until Poh shared her story. That’s what representation does.
It took me a long time to be proud of my heritage. I didn’t start owning it until I was 19, and I’m still trying to figure it all out. But having people like Poh on TV helps a lot. Poh makes me feel seen, she makes my heart swell with pride. I have this joke with my mum about how there are two types of Asians: you’re either a Reynold or a Poh. And I’m a Poh. I’m not cool, calm, and collected – I’m a huge organised mess who always puts too much on her plate, both literally and figuratively. And that’s okay.
So even though Poh won’t win this season of MasterChef, I like to think she’s left an even greater legacy that goes beyond winning the competition. For me at least, Poh has given me a sense of belonging I’d never felt before. And that is something I will always be grateful for.Image: Network 10