Diana Chan talks to BeanScene about Malaysian kopitiams, the time she won MasterChef Australia, and debunking the myth about the complexity of Asian cooking.
The aroma of Malaysian spices wafting through the door of Diana Chan’s house is tantalising. She’s knee-deep in preparations for her dinner party with Australian culinary icons and MasterChef family members including Matt Preston, Anna Polyviou, and Khan Ong. Her kitchen bench is laden with traditional Malaysian dishes in the works, such beef rendang, a hong bak, black pepper crayfish, sambal prawn, tempeh goreng, and cucumber salad.
There’s just a few hours left until her guests arrive, but Diana’s not the least bit worried. She experienced pressure far greater when she appeared on the 2017 season of MasterChef Australia and defeated Ben Ungermann by one point in the grand finale.
“I’m used to cooking under pressure. Preparation is key,” she says. “MasterChef was an experience of a lifetime. It feels like ages ago. The difference is now I get to cook the things I want to eat every day, rather than for the cameras. But it was so much fun and so exciting – I’d do it again for fun.”
Life changed dramatically for Diana after winning the popular reality cooking show. Her corporate career at Deloitte became increasingly difficult to juggle with event appearances and travel demands, leading her to choose food over finance.
“I don’t regret my decision because I love what I do. I’m living and breathing my passion every day,” she says.
“Could I have made a food career without winning MasterChef? Perhaps, but I don’t think I would have. Starting out in food here without a name is really hard. You need a lot of investment and money to back yourself or have a really great idea that’s different and stands out, otherwise you’re just the flavour of the month. We’re very fickle here because we’re spoilt for choice – not just for our incredible food, but our quality coffee.”
Diana has a healthy obsession with coffee. She was just seven or eight years old when she recalls growing up in Malaysia and watching people drink “village coffee”.
“Kopitiams, which are little coffee shops on virtually every corner in Malaysia, mostly at massive intersections, use local beans. They serve it jet black. It’s similar to Turkish coffee in that it’s really thick, but not necessarily strong, just dark in colour,” Diana says. “Malaysians drink it with condensed milk so it’s sweet, or they drink it black with a little bit of sugar or Kopi C, Carnation milk [evaporated milk] without sugar, which is technically a healthier version of condensed milk.”
Growing up, Diana’s mother wouldn’t let her drink coffee, always saying “it’s not good for you”. It was only when she moved out of home at age 16 or 17 that her rebelliousness kicked in and Diana got her first taste of the jet-black, village drink.
“I love coffee. I look for a full-bodied flavour and a roast that’s not too acidic. I like black coffee like long blacks and espresso because the focus is only on the coffee. But if have a milk-based coffee, I tend to have it with almond milk,” Diana says. “For me, Melbourne has the best milk coffees.”
Diana travels frequently to Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia and has seen the rise of western cafés popping up. She says its progression is thanks to the young generation who travel to Australia to study, absorb the café culture, and return home and apply what they’ve learnt to their own cafés.
In her own home, Diana has a Nespresso machine she never uses. Instead, she buys ground beans from her local café and roaster around the corner called Ground Yourself, which she uses for filter coffee first thing in the morning. In the afternoon, she’ll treat herself to “proper coffee” from favourite Melbourne institutes including Patricia Coffee Brewers, Brother Baba Budan, St Ali, Monk Bodhi Dharma, Padre, and Axil Coffee.
“Eight out of 10 places you visit in Melbourne will deliver good coffee and the ultimate café experience. Take Patricia’s for example. It’s a hole in the wall next to a dumpster. It fits 10 people at the bar, if that. It’s very minimal. It doesn’t have a focus on food – except delicious butterbing biscuits and free soda water on tap, which makes it even more cool,” Diana says. “There’s no seating, only standing. Everyone is there to have a good coffee or have a catchup over a good coffee. They do variations of coffee and milk well, but it’s also the ambience, the music, the vibe, and the mystery of this hidden laneway location you struggle to find. That’s the magic of a good Melbourne café.”
In Turkey, Diana says its magic is found in the cup.
“Every household I visited had a proper Turkish coffee machine and served the black, bitter, filter coffee in beautiful decorated little espresso cups. I loved it so much. I’ve honestly never been to a place that drinks more coffee than the Turks. They have about seven cups a day, I’m not kidding. I only manage two.”
Diana says the most expensive coffee she’s ever paid for is an $11 almond latte in Hong Kong, which is apparently normal for the Asian city.
“The culture there is more tea drinking. Coffee is a novelty, so there’s not many cafés. The ones that do serve coffee charge a premium. I was shocked it was so pricey but at least it was good,” she says. “Melburnians also pay top dollar for coffee, but we don’t want anything sub-par.”
Growing up in Malaysia, food was anything but sub-par in the Chan household, with Diana’s parents and grandmother talented cooks who believed in abundant, healthy food.
“Food played a big part in my family. I come from one of those crazy food families,” Diana says.
“My mum was a working mum. It didn’t matter how late she came home – she would always cook dinner for us. It wasn’t just about the sustenance of it. She would shop every day to get the freshest produce, so we grew up eating good healthy food. Mum cooks really seasonally, so she’d make typical Malaysian dishes from bone broth to rice and curries. Family dinner was also a chance to catch up on our day. We would sit around the dinner table and debrief.”
Thanks to her family’s food appreciation instilled from an early age, Diana is passionate about sharing her food obsession, which she was fortunate to share through a 10-part SBS Food series, Asia Unplated with Diana Chan. Each episode highlighted one Asian cuisine and one guest chef – some familiar faces and some not, ranging from chefs Gary Mehigan and Adam D’Sylva to the Japanese chef down the road from Diana’s house, and her childhood friend.
“I am very proud of the show and its intention to break the stigma that cooking Asian food is complex. We had a great calibre of guests and the content was good. It celebrated non-fussy Asian cooking – you don’t have to have 500 million sauces, just 10 base ones to make something unique,” Diana says.
“It was amazing to share my understanding of the origins of Asian dishes and impart a bit of my knowledge to the viewers.”
Diana is hoping to produce a second season of Asia Unplated and is already excited about the extensive array of events, travel adventures, and new range of frozen dumplings set to hit the shelves in 2020 – “because Aussies are obsessed with dumplings”, Diana says.
“2019 was good to me, and hopefully the good run keeps going. I can’t wait to see where it takes me.”
Keep up-to-date on Diana Chan’s adventures on social media, including Instagram @diana.chan.au