Before the rest of Australia knew her as Canberra’s MasterChef Australia star, Natasha Shan was already a familiar name in her city’s culinary circle. So much so that she received an invitation for a glimpse into America’s food and culture during the Fourth of July celebrations at the United States Embassy last week.
Malaysian-born Tash, 28, has certainly come a long way from her younger self who used to fiercely guarded the recipes she gleaned from shadowing her grandmother in the kitchen. It was a long while after cooking sumptuous spreads for friends that she finally realised the heart of cooking didn’t lie in just the feeding but also in the sharing. And so her blog, akitchencat, was born.
Her earnest blogging of new creations and old favourites over the last few years have won her a sizable following, many of whom rallied behind her during her MasterChef journey under the social media hashtag #teamtash. Her blog now boasts a readerships that stretches over 100 countries but none of that has gone to Tash’s head.
At heart – and in the kitchen – she remains that same girl whose love for cooking began with the company she kept at the family table and grew with the strangers and friends who continue to revel in her food and recipes.
When did you discover your knack for creating great meals?
I realised I loved cooking from a very early age. Mum loves to tell the story of when she fell asleep and woke up to a two year-old Tash rubbing talcum powder all over her dresser. When asked what I was doing, I emphatically told her “making roti canai”. I never learnt to cook though. In a Malaysian family, it was always the responsibility of the elder women in the house. When I moved to Australia, I looked at heaps of blogs, bought a few cookbooks and started learning to cook.
Describe meal times as a child.
Meal times as a child is probably the main reason I love food so much. We’d eat together but on big occasions like Christmas, all the extended family (Chinese, Indian and Malay) would gather round a shared table – and we’re a big, loud family! There’s nothing else quite like it. It’s my favourite time of the year.
I’ve also been very lucky to have been brought up on great food. Lots of Chinese and Indian food, kicap chicken, grandma’s dahl and mum always had to have green vegetables on the table. I was always taught to share food. As a child, I’d hide my chocolates and my sister would eat all of hers and then come find mine! My parents were very firm on that – food is for sharing and I think that’s why I now love to cook for friends.
What do meal times represent now?
I love sharing food with friends. It makes it much more fun so at our house there are people over for dinner three nights a week and usually at least one big dinner party on weekends.
What do you most remember about following your grandmother around in the kitchen?
I remember her never having a recipe for anything. She cooked using the agak agak (estimation) method. It made me realise that anyone can be a good cook but the really great ones cook with intuition. I also remember telling her I hated Indian food and asking her not to cook any more curry, which is funny because grandma is actually Chinese.
What do you think it is about food that brings people together?
It’s called breaking bread for a reason, right? When you cook for someone, you’re really saying “come share my home, my food and my wine”. Great friendships come from that. For me, no matter how different you are as people or what ideologies you might have, inviting someone over and asking them to share a meal at your table is the ultimate gesture of goodwill.
Do you prefer to cook or be fed?
Cook, always cook! I do like to go out to restaurants but there’s something therapeutic about cooking.
Your kitchen catches fire. What three items do you save?
Oh dear! Coffee machine and grinder (that totally counts as one right?), pressure cooker and KitchenAid.
What are some of the best relationships that you’ve built over food?
I cooked my boyfriend really terrible fried rice once. It was the first thing I ever cooked for him too. Nine years on, we’re still together and he likes to tell people that he can spot potential.
You’re holding a dinner party for six. What are you celebrating, who’s invited and what’s being served?
I don’t need an excuse to celebrate. Sometimes it’s just nice to have good friends over. I’m serving roast eye fillet in a Parmesan crust with lentils and smoked potatoes, and dark chocolate soufflé for dessert.
Do you think all women should know their way around the kitchen?
No, of course not! Women aren’t born to cook and clean. I think that people should only cook if they enjoy it. Sometimes, it’s what you cook that’s enjoyable too. Someone might not enjoy making a chocolate soufflé, but they might like making pasta