An interview with Poh Ling Yeow
Poh's Nonya chicken curry.
Poh Ling Yeow, you remember her, the insanely gorgeous and seriously smiley contestant from Masterchef Series 1? Well she is on a mission. A Malaysian food mission. Turns out Asian food, and in particular Malay food, isn’t spectacularly familiar to most Aussie eating folk. Recent Malaysia Kitchen Australia survey stats suggest we don’t know our laksa from our butter chickens. Something that shocked me as an ardent lover, thrice-weekly consumer of the stuff, but Poh tells me it’s more likely to be the case that “we’ve eaten it, potentially without even knowing. If you’ve had Indian or Chinese, both influences on the cuisine, then you’ve had Malaysian.” Presence of mind restored.
A lot of Malaysian dishes tend to suffer the same fate as the pavlova with confusion and contest over the origins of many dishes from chicken rice to satay.The dishes most commonly associated with Malaysia are probably satay and the rich dry coconut curry, beef rendang - a traditional Malay recipe. While many cuisines - from Nyonya, a distinctive Chinese/Malay style of cooking, to that of the Indigenous peoples of Malaysian Borneo - are far less well known. To add to the confusion, such classic dishes are sometimes cooked in the traditional style of their home country, and sometimes given the treatment of the cook's own culture so not only will you find, for instance, Chinese restaurants serving traditional Malay dishes, you'll find Malay - and other - restaurants serving variations of Thai, Chinese, Indian, and Indonesian dishes. Malaysian cuisine is, by its nature, enormously diverse and that's to be embraced. And this is Poh’s mission. To have us cooking a Malaysian style dish as often as spag bol.
And talking to her, you want to. You could listen to Poh discuss the food that is indigenous to her heritage all day, its almost lyrical. 10 minutes in and I want to bust out the fry pan and get my nonya on; after 30 I’m wondering when she might like to pop by for a curry and a wine, maybe swap a friendship bracelet or two. I tell Poh that the lack of awareness may have something to do with many recipes involving ingredient lists that makes the magna carta look brief but she assures me just how simple the “making can be”.
“Most dishes involve a rempah – a wet curry paste that forms the base of heaps of Malay dishes. You can make this in batches, keeping some in the fridge, or even freeze it for later. The majority of the ingredients go into this paste and it’s mostly a case of a quick blitz in the blender and you’re done.” To prove just how doable it is, Poh has also provided a few must have ingredients for expanding our culinary repertoire Malay style – dried shrimp paste, dried chillies, anchovies, red eschalots, lemongrass and tamarind.
Poh’s Nonya Chicken Curry
3 Tbs coconut cream
10 sprigs of curry leaves
1 star anise
2 whole cloves
1 cinnamon stick
1 1/2 kg chicken thigh fillets
500g baby chat potatoes, peeled, halved and parboiled
2 bird’s eye chillies deseeded and halved lengthways
500ml coconut milk
1 Tbs salt
1 tsp sugar
Rempah (wet spice paste)
3 Tbs ground coriander
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground fennel
15 dried long red chillies, deseeded, soaked in boiling water until soft, drained and chopped
20g shrimp paste
25g fresh turmeric root, peeled and sliced
3 cloves garlic, peeled, sliced
270g red eschallots OR Spanish onion, peeled, sliced
1/3 cup vegetable oil
To make the rempah, blend the rempah ingredients in a food processor until you achieve a fine paste. Heat a heavy based saucepan or wok, to a medium heat. Add the rempah, coconut cream, curry leaves, star anise, cloves and cinnamon stick and saute for about 10 minutes. You will know the paste is ready when it thickens, darkens in colour and the oil begins to separate from the mixture. Add chicken pieces and stir-fry for 1 minute. Add potatoes, chillies, coconut milk, salt and sugar. Cover and simmer until chicken and potatoes are cooked through. Serve with steamed jasmine rice or roti canai.