A MasterChef winner in 2014, Ping Coombes grew up with amazing Chinese-Malaysian food around her and was inspired by her mother’s cookery. She began to inherit traditional skills, starting with the basics - how to hold the ‘wok chan’ (the ladle). Perhaps most inspiring to Ping was her mother’s way of showing love and passion through cooking, something which is hugely important in Ping’s food ethos.
Ping is currently the Executive Chef to Chi Kitchen, a Pan Asian Restaurant. She also regularly collaborates with well-known chefs and restaurants in hosting pop ups. Her latest pop up is with the Michelin starred chef Atul Kochhar at his restaurant Sindhu in Marlow and Benares in London. Ping appeared in many popular daytime talk shows such as ITV This Morning and Sunday Brunch. She launched her YouTube channel ‘in the kitchen with Ping Coombes’ recently showcasing simple and delicious recipes.
How did you celebrate Chinese New Year when you were younger and how do you celebrate it now?
I have a large family in Malaysia so every year we had a lot of visits from our relatives and my mother and grandmother would cook up a feast for us all. I used to have different outfits for every day and to count the angpows (red envelopes) at the end of the day. As I grew up, Chinese New Year has become a much quieter but more important affair. My brother and I travel back to Malaysia every year to celebrate with my parents. It is no longer about outfits and angpows. It is more about spending quality time together and bonding as a family as this is the only time of the year we all sit together to have a meal!
What is the signature/special dish you would normally have with your family at Chinese New Year?
On the first day of Chinese New Year, I always help my mother cook her signature fermented beancurd vegetarian stew made with Chinese leaves, straw mushrooms, carrots and black moss ‘fatt choy’ - it is so delicious. We usually have this for breakfast and refrain from meat on the day. My mum says that during Chinese New Year we always overindulge so it is important to show a little restraint, especially on the first day of Chinese New Year.
In Chinese food culture, certain food items have special symbolic meaning, does it affect how you prepare a meal for special occasions, such as for a family reunion and inviting old friends around?
If we have friends around we always make sure that certain dishes are on the table, like whole fish that symbolises an increase in prosperity, braised sea cucumber which symbolises happiness and lots of tangerines and mandarins to have around the house and to give away as gifts.
Where and how did you learn to cook? Who/what is your biggest inspiration?
I only started cooking once I’d moved away from home. I craved home cooking at university so I began experimenting and realised how much I enjoyed it. My biggest inspiration is no doubt my mother.
What does authentic Chinese food mean to you?
Something that is passed down from one generation to another. Different families have their own unique way of cooking certain dishes.
What do you envision for the future of Chinese food in the UK?
Fewer people will resort to Chinese takeaway. A lot more chefs/cooks in the industry are working hard to make Chinese cooking accessible.
Is there an element of British food culture that you admire or has had an influence on your work, and why?
I love seasonality and provenance that are increasingly evident in British food culture. I try to use as much seasonal and local produce as possible. For example I like substituting traditional ingredients in a dish to more seasonal ingredients where possible.
What British ingredient are you most excited to cook with for Chinese dishes?
British pork. I have a farm near me that produces the best tasting pork so I do a lot of Chinese dishes with pork.
What ingredient do you always have in your fridge to make Chinese food? And what is your favourite Chinese dish(es)?
I always have Chinese sausage as my eldest daughter loves it. My favourite Chinese dish is Chinese Roast Pork.
Do you use oyster sauce often at home? If so, how do you normally use it?
Yes I use it very often in stir fries, dressings, for steaming fish and for marinating.
Do you have a signature dish in which soy sauce takes centre stage? If so, what is it?
My mum’s signature dish is caramel braised pork and it calls for good quality soy sauce (such as the Lee Kum Kee Double Deluxe Soy Sauce). It makes the most unctuous sauce that goes so well with rice.
Do you have a signature dish that the usage of oyster sauce take central stage? If so, what is it?
I do a very quick steamed fish with garlic oil and oyster sauce. It is my daughter’s favourite dish.
Have you tried using oyster sauce or soy sauce to make Western dishes? Please explain.
Yes I have - oyster and soy sauce are a great alternative to salt. I often make stews and curries and flavour them with either soy sauce or oyster sauce for more umami taste. I am currently experimenting on making a soy sauce ice cream.
Beside oyster sauce and soy sauce, which are your favourite Lee Kum Kee sauces?
I also love Lee Kum Kee Hoisin Sauce, Chilli Bean Sauce and XO sauce.
What does Lee Kum Kee mean to you?
My mum has used Lee Kum Kee sauces for as long as I can remember so Lee Kum Kee reminds me of home cooking and reminds me of my mum.
What do you normally cook when you're at home? And what would be your ideal dish that can cook up in under 15 minutes?
A fried rice. I often make fried rice using leftover rice. I make sure there is protein, carbs and vegetables in a fried rice to make it a balanced meal.
If you could tell the home cooks of the world one thing, what would it be?
Don’t be scared to experiment or make mistakes in your cooking.