Diaspora diaries

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 April, 2011, 12:00am


Keeping up a stream of banter with a guest presenter, Poh Ling Yeow applies icing to a chiffon cake. Her deft strokes with the spatula remind the viewer of the cook's other career - as an artist. While the demands of television chefdom and painting might fall on opposite ends of the personality spectrum, Poh traces her drive to excel at both to the same source.

'Finding that one thing that connects you emotionally to your art or craft anchors your mind; you will find there won't be enough time or ways to get to all your ideas,' the 37-year-old host of the Australian Broadcasting Corp's (ABC) Poh's Kitchen says. 'Mine is simple. It's about being a part of two cultures and finding that sense of belonging in the world that everyone yearns for.'

The fifth-generation Chinese-Malaysian arrived in Australia at the age of nine, when her family moved from Kuala Lumpur to Northwood, Adelaide.

'When my parents told us we were moving, I had this gut feeling that everything would be OK. At first, I definitely felt the culture shock. One instance was when my auntie had packed my favourite lunch of chicken giblets in a soy and star anise sauce. It was horrifying opening it up at school next to all these kids with sandwiches. I quickly shut it and stuffed it back into my bag.

'I remember finding it interesting how kids in Australia had so much freedom, and how so much recreation was incorporated into the curriculum. I was a really poor student in Malaysia but when I moved to Australia, I did quite well at school.'

Poh earned a degree in commercial art and worked freelance in design and styling until her first solo art show, in 2002, after which she painted full time. Her acrylic on canvas pieces often feature elements of Chinese symbolism and an autobiographical character Poh refers to as 'the girl'.

'Any research I do on [symbolism in her art] is mainly to make sure the image doesn't accidentally denote bad luck. I'm not superstitious but, as a general rule, the Chinese are, and if I use some bit of iconography that's no good, I'll get complaints from my great auntie.'

In 2005, Poh began dabbling in cookery shows by entering ABC's Beat the Chef.

'Being a child migrant, I had been so eager to shed anything that made me feel different. But in my 30s, I suddenly felt regret that I'd lost so much of my culture. I saw cooking as the last vestige of my culture that I could hang on to - a connection to my past and something to hand on to my future. As part of this mission to reclaim my cultural roots, my mum and I had discussed how we should write a cookbook to record all those dishes we have eaten as part of family dinners since I was a child. And I thought, 'If I am to have any chance of publishing, it would be handy to get my face on TV.''

Her break came in 2009, when she was runner-up in the first season of reality cookery show MasterChef Australia.

'I definitely think my multicultural background gave me an edge. At every challenge I needed to have a point of difference. Even if it didn't work, I needed to show the judges processes and ingredients they may have been unfamiliar with. It made me cook instinctively, drawing on memory and flavours I had grown up with without necessarily having learnt it.'

Offers for a cooking show and a double-book deal soon followed. Poh says hers is a tough balancing act but one that is in line with her pursuits 'in all areas of creativity'.

'It's taken me almost a decade to earn a decent living from my art, then, last year, I was thrown in at the deep end with the show and publishing. I'm looking forward hopefully to another season of Poh's Kitchen and more books, but not before having a break and going nuts on my easel.'