Before The Great British Bake Off, I never thought to bake a cake in four hours or do something that elaborate. It’s so surprising how the stress and desperation pushes you. I’d call it a human instinct to survive: no matter what I do, I have to serve something at the end.
I grew up in Malacca City, in the south part of Malaysia and I’m the second of seven children and the first daughter. The thing about being the first daughter is you have to do everything. It starts in the morning: I had to do the laundry, get ready for school, cycle to school, do my homework, cook for dinner, tidy up everything and repeat every day. So I’m used to a very tight schedule, being busy. When I don’t have anything to do, I’m always rearranging stuff in my house.
My grandmother lived next door, and taught me to cook. But she would only tell you the ingredients list, not how much to put in. So I would cook by guesstimating. But then she said: “You can throw anything in your pan, but it always has to have a ratio.” So that’s what I learned from her. And now, whenever I develop any recipe, even baking, I go by ratio, rather than grams. And when the ratio is correct, then you work out the quantity.
I have been separated from my parents since I was 15. They got divorced and it ended up in a very bad way. It still affects me now, but it has also shaped me to become the person I am today. Whatever happens, yep, I’ll cry, but then I’ll pick up the pieces because I have to survive anyway. The sadness is real, but I have to move forward and make the best of my life. And I’m really proud of what I achieved so far: I got a PhD and then I won Bake Off!
My first week in England, I had to eat egg and cress sandwiches, sandwiches every day! And I just sat on a bench at my university and cried. I missed Malaysian food so much. So that’s when I started to cook myself and I started to discover where to find Asian ingredients in England because I can’t survive on sandwiches.
My lowest point on Bake Off was week five [dessert week: where she finished last in the technical challenge to make a lemon meringue pie] when I was nearly kicked out. I came back home and I said to my partner: “Right, I’m going to take all of the judges’ comments, go back to the blank drawing board and start again.” So I did that, I hardly slept because my mind was thinking how to do that. But it was all worth it.
I work as a research scientist and, without thinking, I implement all my research skills and lab skills in baking. Because in research, before you start anything, you always research every single component of an experiment: what you need, why they are there, and why you need them. And you ask: why does it have to heat up to this temperature? Why can’t I use them cold? And it is the same with butter, flour, eggs and everything..
I have a confidence issue: I don’t think I’m good enough to be a baker. It’s a conflict within myself, so Bake Off really helped my self-confidence. I just feel more comfortable with my instinct and more comfortable to bake and not be paranoid about any bad comments. I’ll just go with it.
My dream – this is the wildest dream I’m talking about – is to publish a cookbook and make more appearances on TV. Then hopefully, six, seven years down the line, I have my own cooking show. That’s hard to get, but maybe I can be like Nadiya, I don’t know.
My favourite things
Nasi lemak [rice cooked in coconut milk and pandan leaves, served with peanuts, anchovies and cucumber]. That’s the food I ate nearly every day when I was in Malaysia. And, when I’m here in England, I have a craving for it once in a month, so I usually have to either cook it myself or go to Peninsula in Boxpark on Shoreditch High Street, which makes a banging Malaysian nasi lemak.
If it’s a cocktail, a zombie. If it’s a sweet drink, it is a Malaysian-based drink, teh tarik, which is pulled tea made from very strong tea and a little bit of condensed milk, and you pull it together until it is very bubbly.
Place to eat?
I always go to Wetherspoon’s, because it’s cheap and nice. I love the chicken wings and their nice katsu curry. It’s actually not katsu curry, it tastes more like lemongrass Malaysian curry. But it’s delicious, so I go with it.
Dish to make
Sambal. It’s a Malaysian spicy chilli sauce made from dried chilli that you boil and then fry with oil. You can add anything to it: eggs, chicken, fish … so that is my go-to food to cook.