Award-winning chef, Ping Coombes is bringing the heady flavours of classic Malaysian cuisine to a mainstream audience
It was a temporary setback that propelled Ping Coombes into the big time. When a comfortable career in hospitality management ended in redundancy, she found the time to take part in the 2014 edition of MasterChef UK, winning the competition with a signature style that paid homage to the rich flavours of Malaysian cooking.
The success brought her instant fame and a platform for what she has grasped as her mission. “My mission in the UK is to fly the flag for Malaysian cuisine – Malay, Chinese, Indian, Mamak, Nyonya – the fusion aspect of it all,” says Ping.
She takes this ambassadorial role seriously, promoting Malaysian cuisine at food festivals, television appearances, and even through a talk at the World Economic Forum in Davos. “The way I think we will get Malaysian food out there is to get a few dishes that people recognise instantly as Malaysian. For instance, when I say laksa, people should be able to say: Yes, that is Malaysian,” she says.
Showcasing Modern Malaysian Cuisine
Describing her cooking as Modern Malaysian, Ping says she takes care to preserve the authenticity of the Malaysian dishes she cooks while also adding a modern take. “But not crazy modern,” she quickly adds. “I want each dish to taste how it should – presented in a modern way but not so modern that you don't know what it is anymore.”
Recently, working with a travel company, she found herself introducing her cooking to an upscale clientele at a skiing resort in the Alps. Instead of a fondue they might have expected, she picked a laksa adapted for the locale, substituting the usual prawn or chicken stock with one made from wild and porcini mushrooms. The core ingredients of coconut milk, lemon grass, galangal and green chillies, which give the broth its body, she left unchanged.
Adapting and Learning
Travelling and watching what others are doing has helped her mature as a chef, adapt new techniques and give borrowed recipes a Malaysian interpretation.
Ping feels that Malaysian desserts, though delicious, are often an acquired taste. In the MasterChef final, she addressed the challenge by giving the classic Italian panna cotta a Malaysian makeover, infusing it with coconut and enhancing it with hints of pineapple and mango.
Throughout the MasterChef competition, Ping showcased the melting pot cooking of Malaysia. Her final three-course menu featured inventively updated versions of two commonplace Malaysian dishes, wanton soup, a Chinese dumpling soup, and nasi lemak, a Malay fragrant rice dish cooked in coconut milk and pandan (screwpine) leaf.
Ping added depth to her soup starter by using a variety of mushrooms, while her nasi lemak dazzled with its array of accompaniments. The multi-layered menu drew high praise. “I am amazed by the amount of work and the appearance of your dishes. Those flavours I haven’t experienced before and they absolutely thrill me,” one judge told her during the competition.
Yet Ping only started cooking late. A native of Ipoh, a city in the northern Malaysian state of Perak known for its food, Ping arrived in the UK in 2000 as a student with few cooking skills. A yearning for the tastes of her childhood led her to the kitchen and to experiment with the type of dishes she had grown up with. Soon, she was cooking for family and friends.
Ping lives in Bath in the county of Somerset, England, with her husband and daughter but travels often as a chef. For now, that means at least one trip to London every week, where she is Executive Chef at Chi Kitchen, a casual dining restaurant in Debenhams' flagship store on Oxford Street.
Her cookbook titled Malaysia was published in 2016, and includes recipes for classics such as rendang, laksa and char kway teow. She has taken care to ensure that the recipes are simple, attainable and that all ingredients are readily available in the UK.
“My joy is in seeing someone attempting the dishes. When people have taken the time to recreate a dish from Malaysia, I think that is something to be celebrated,” she says.