MasterChef showcases Australia’s cultural and culinary diversity

MasterChef Australia’s latest season Back to Win has been hailed by viewers as the most diverse in the show’s 11 years on Australian television. This season sees 24 fan favourites from the past 11 years return to compete once more for a chance at victory. 

An impressive 8 out of 24 of contestants are Asian-Australians. The result is a celebration of Australia’s melting pot food culture and a smorgasbord of delicious Asian dishes on our screens. The show is also smashing television ratings.

MasterChef Back to Win Contestants, Source: Network Ten

Nowadays in Australia, roughly 10 per cent of people are identified as having significant Asian heritage. This is about the same as the proportion of African Americans in the United States. Yet, when we compare the representation of these respective groups in popular culture, it is clear that Australia has a diversity problem on television.

MasterChef has emerged as an exception to this trend. Asian Australian contestants from previous seasons have gone on to become household names and achieve success through their various restaurants, television cooking shows, and supermarket products.

A returning contestant who holds a firm place in viewers’ hearts is Poh Ling Yeow. She narrowly missed out on the trophy in season 1 and is now back with a vengeance. The Malaysian-born Australian is known for her bubbly personality and ABC television show Poh’s Kitchen.

Since MasterChef began airing in 2009, Australian supermarkets have reported a significant rise in the sales of Asian ingredients such as Asian greens, lemongrass, and kaffir lime leaves. A survey of the country’s eating habits confirms this growing appetite for Asian cuisine, with Thai food being Australians’ current preferred takeaway option.

Following the departure of former hosts Matt Preston, Gary Mehigan and George Calombaris in 2019, fans waited with bated breath to see who would fill their shoes. Enter new judges: award-winning chef Jock Zonfrillo, food writer Melissa Leong, and 2012 MasterChef winner Andy Allen.

New judges Andy Allen, Melissa Leong and Jock Zonfrillo, Source: Network Ten

It’s Leong, a food writer and first-generation Singaporean-Australian, who has won over the public with her evocative descriptions of food and her empathy towards contestants. She has also provided some much-needed Asian food literacy on the show.

The benefit of having judges who understand different cultures and cuisines cannot be understated. MasterChef UK came under fire in 2018 when judge Greg Wallace critiqued contestant Zaleha Kadir Olpin’s chicken rendang dish, saying that her chicken skin was not “crispy”. Rendang, a widely popular dish in Indonesia and Malaysia, is made by slow-cooking meat in coconut milk and spices. Such a comment would be tantamount to blasphemy in places such as Indonesia and Malaysia. Indeed, the Malaysian Prime Minister even weighed in to criticise the show’s ignorance.

With Leong on board, MasterChef Australia has an ally for Southeast Asian cuisine who will hopefully help to educate the Australian public about the region’s rich culinary history.

Several TV-moments have particularly resonated with Asian-Australian viewers this season. Leong’s week one Mystery Box saw contestants create a dish using only ingredients such as chicken feet, taro, black vinegar, galangal, and Chinese five-spice. Her aim was for contestants to leave with a “new-found appreciation” for these perhaps unfamiliar ingredients.

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Melissa Leong’s Mystery Box, Source: Network Ten

Chicken feet proved to be a divisive ingredient amongst contestants and followers of the show. Social media was abuzz when one contestant chose to make an ice cream accompanied by a chicken feet caramel. Considering that soft-serve ice cream used to commonly contain pig fat this should not seem too unusual. Yet, it is clear from the online reactions that there exists a certain level of squeamishness towards some Asian ingredients.  

Although Nose-to-tail eating has become trendy in recent years throughout the world. When looking at Asian cuisine, the same approach is considered uncivilised and unhygienic. Since the coronavirus pandemic, an increase in xenophobia towards Asians has only exacerbated such sentiments.

Yet, in the days following the episode, food delivery app Deliveroo reported a 5,272 per cent increase in searches for chicken feet. This shows that Australian’s are at least a little bit more curious about the ingredient. Posting on Instagram after the show, Leong said: “chicken feet sensationalism aside, I believe that every part of our story makes us who we are, and I am proud of who I am and where I come from.”  

Another key moment was last week’s immunity challenge episode. In the first round, contestants had 15 minutes to “pimp” a packet of instant noodles. Fans flocked to Twitter to share their personal favourite noodle brands and recipes as well as praise the representation of Asian cuisines.

Following their victory in the instant noodle challenge, Poh Ling Yeow and Jess Liemantara were tasked with presenting their favourite comfort foods to the judges to win immunity from elimination. Jess, an Indonesian-Australian, made Thai red duck curry with Roti Canai inspired by her family restaurant. While Poh made Malaysian otak-otak with nasi lemak. Overall, the episode offered a celebration of Southeast Asian cuisine which Asian Australians delighted in.

At such a time of uncertainty, MasterChef Australia plays an important role in encouraging kindness towards people of all backgrounds. It is also providing some much-needed culinary comfort for its fans throughout the pandemic.

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