Cover Diana Chan

The Perak-born accountant-turned-chef shares her favourite Malaysian watering holes, Johor Bahru restaurants, and more

Since making the move from accountancy to food, Diana Chan has taken the scene by storm, winning the ultra-competitive MasterChef Australia and becoming something of a celebrity in the food scene.

Chan was born in Sitiawan, Perak, where she grew up on a guava farm, and moved to Johor Bahru with her parents at a young age. At 18, she moved to Melbourne where she started cooking to stay connected to her Peranakan roots and preserve her appreciation for the food she grew up with. 

Despite going on to build a flourishing career in finance, she signed up for MasterChef Australia. Since her win, she’s made a name for herself in Australia and beyond. She has opened a pop-up restaurant, hosted events, and collaborated and partnered with brands all over the globe such as Kenwood, Malaysia Airlines, and St. Regis, to name a few. 

Through it all, Chan has maintained her passion for her heritage and continues to spread her love for Malaysian cuisine. “People don’t realise how different and unique each Malaysian state is with their cuisines, which is always so incredible,” beams Chan.

We chat with Chan to find out where she goes for her nightcaps in KL, her favourite dishes from Johor Bahru, and more.

Related: A Taste of Home: Former Hakkasan Chef Ho Chee Boon Shares His Love Of Street Food

What do you miss most about being away from Malaysia? 

I miss the hawker food and the street food. Every time I go back to Malaysia, I’ve got a long list of things that I have to eat like my bak kut teh, char kuey teow and kuey teow soup. These recipes have been handed down through generations, so it would be sad if they were gone one day.

Melbourne has some of the best fine dining restaurants in the world but things like the labour-intensive dishes that you can get at hawker stalls—that's what I miss most. And there are always specific places that I like to go to for certain dishes, even if it means driving a long way to get them.

Of course, I miss my mum’s cooking. Both my parents are Peranakan, so I tend to have a notepad with me to listen to her and watch her as she cooks. I try to learn as much as I can while I still can. So hopefully I can carry on these recipes and pass them on one day!

What is the first dish you eat when you return and where do you go for it? 

An Indian breakfast—thosai, chapati, roti canai, paratha since we don’t get them here. I think Malaysia does South Indian food so well.

Do you have a favourite restaurant in Malaysia?

New Lucky Restaurant in Johor Bahru that just does zi char (wok fry). It is very similar to Oversea Restaurant in KL. I can eat there every day.

Related: A Taste of Home: Cookbook Author Christina Arokiasamy Reveals Her Malaysian Cravings

If you have guests visiting from abroad, where would you take them to give them a real taste of Malaysia?

I would split it into cities. I would bring them to New Lucky Restaurant because they have everything there. But if they wanted something a bit fancier, I would bring them to KL to go to some top restaurants, one of them being Dewakan. What Darren Teoh does is just amazing, really pushing boundaries. Nadodi is also great. These restaurants are really trying to recreate Malaysian food and I love that. It’s new age dining.

Aliyaa is also another spot I love for catching up with friends over proper and spicy Sri Lankan food. Another one of my favourites is Bijan beacuse it’s got a nice environment and it has stayed focused on delivering great Malay food. For dim sum, my pick would be Marco Polo in Wisma Lim Foo Yong along Jalan Raja Chulan.

I also must take friends to get banana leaf rice. If you want variety, here's variety with options for vegetarians.

What bar or café do you like to get your cocktail or coffee fixes from?

Jalan Petaling is a good area for that. My last trip home, I went to Botak Liquor Bar. It’s a few doors down from PS 150 and underneath it is Chocha Foodstore. Botak is a little bar, almost like a speakeasy, that does really cool cocktails. Pahit is also another cute bar that I like.

I think Suzie Wong is fun and cool. You get a show and it’s got a great vibe. For drinks with a view, I would choose Marini’s on 57 or Fuego. I like to go to these places and just enjoy the view.

Related: A Taste of Home: MasterChef Champion of Champions Ping Coombes on Her Favourite Malaysian Eats

Where do you go to find authentic flavours of home in Australia?

We are very lucky in Australia, being so close to Asia, that we have all the ingredients. I would say we have 90 per cent of Asian ingredients you need here. This means that if you can cook, you can recreate your favourite dishes at home.

Aru by Khanh Nguyen and Sunda Dining do Malaysian food very well. I also go to Grand Barbecue in Glen Waverley (a suburb in Melbourne) for Chinese food—they have yong tau foo! I also go to Lulu’s Char Koay Teow, where the char kuey teow is probably the closest to the one at home.

Do you stock up on any Malaysian ingredients or packaged foods when flying back to Australia?

Even though I can get a lot of the ingredients here, I still pack a lot when I fly back. It’s because my mum chucks everything into my bag because she thinks I can’t get anything here.

However, I will bring things back that I think are just so much better in Malaysia. For example, I went to Langkawi during my last trip home, and they’re known for their ikan bilis. So I brought back a couple of kilos of ikan bilis.

What restaurant would you like to try next when you're home?

Mee Rebus Haji WajidI in Plaza Angsana in Johor Bahru for my mee rebus only because I didn't get to try it the last time.

I really love traditional Malay food and it’s something that I want to learn more because the Malay culture goes so deep and there are so many dishes that I still don’t know.

Related: A Taste Of Home: Basira Yeusuff On Her Favourite Eats In Malaysia

How would you describe your culinary journey so far?

I always say it’s what you make of an experience that matters because opportunities will come—you just have to make the most of them. 

Pre-Covid, I worked a lot in Singapore and Malaysia, collaborating with local brands that helped me build my profile and I’m truly grateful for that. I’ve realised how much I enjoy doing what I do. It’s so cliché but it truly is a dream come true and I would never turn back.

My accountancy helped when it comes to running my own business. It was very daunting at the start but it’s so exciting.

What's your advice for someone considering a career change like you had?

You have to be pragmatic but also you don’t want to be too calculative. If you’re too calculative, you would never take risks. For me, it was still a risk but it was a calculated risk and I went in knowing that I had nothing to lose.

I do believe in having a backup plan and you need to be able to plan ahead too. It doesn’t mean planning every step of the way because that can make you feel risk adverse but you should be able to plan your journey out a little bit.

And know that if things don’t work out, it’s not the end of the world!

What are your Top 3 food cities and why?

Istanbul because it is so unique. I love Turkish food with a little of its European influence too. I think the food scene in London is pretty good with its variety. For my last one, I might be a little biased but I love Melbourne.

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