MasterChef Australia‘s Mimi Wong Feels “Estranged” From Her Cantonese Identity — But Cooking Is Healing That

This week on MasterChef Australia, the budding home cooks are leaving the kitchen and catching a flight to Hong Kong, where across four episodes, the contestants will surround themselves with Cantonese culture. They'll cook in front of the 34-metre-tall Big Buddha statues, and experience the authentic dai pai dongs (or street vendors), and in Sunday night's episode, take on Mystery Boxes packed with classic Cantonese flavours and ingredients.
For Mimi Wong, the experience of flying to Hong Kong for MasterChef Australia is deeply personal, with the home cook splitting her life between Sydney and Hong Kong. Wong was born in Hong Kong and moved to Sydney at age one, but later returned to Hong Kong at age 11 to live with her Ah Por (her grandmother) for seven years following her parent's divorce.
Wong returned to Sydney in 2016, but her experiences of living between Sydney and Hong Kong has meant that part of her has felt "estranged" from having an authentic Cantonese experience.
"It's one of those things where being raised in Australia where my parents thought that they could bring about greater opportunity and stability in my life," Wong tells Refinery29 Australia. "But part of me has always felt estranged from an authentic Cantonese experience."
However, it's here that the art of cooking infused its way into Wong's life, becoming a deeply healing method of connecting with her culture. "I think through food, I was able to find my way and kind of heal that wound a little bit," she says. "And be able to connect with my grandparents — they don't speak very good English — and connect with distinct cousins that I didn't have an opportunity to have a relationship with much growing up."
And do it through food, she did. In Sunday night's episode of MasterChef Australia, the home cooks found themselves cooking from a Hong Kong Mystery Box, where contestants needed to use one of the ingredients in a dish — which could have included quintessentially Cantonese ingredients including pork belly, flower crab, gai lan, red scallions, fermented bean curd, or lap cheong, amongst others.
While Wong initially felt immense pressure to perform and make the perfect dish on home turf, she decided to cook one of her all-time favourite Hong Kong dishes — barbeque pork pineapple buns. Feeling the weight of representing her country and culture, the judges (perhaps unsurprisingly) revealed that she had absolutely nailed it.
For Wong, the pressure to perform in Hong Kong comes from somewhere deeper. The MasterChef Australia contestant tells us that cooking Cantonese cuisine is a key way that she navigates complex cultural and generational struggles, taking it upon herself to not just connect herself with her culture but also to uphold traditions in her family.
"A lot of my cooking and a lot of my practice and learning came unsurprisingly from Covid times when I was deeply separated from the rest of my family," Wong explains. "There needed to be someone in Australia — because it's my brother and I here — who took on the role of upholding a lot of tradition and cultural practices."
She explains that in particular, she needed to take it upon herself to uphold events like Chinese New Year in the family. "I kind of took that upon myself to go and learn all the family recipes so that I could do that for me and for my brother, and for anyone who was in an ethnic minority background that also found themselves in a situation of being away from family on those days," she says.
Wong's experience of living in Hong Kong was humble yet formative, with both her and her brother raised in public housing, living in a tiny apartment with their grandmother, who instilled in them a love for food and the philosophies of being a nurturer.
"My grandma has lived in public housing all her life, and it's the same apartment that my mum and her siblings were raised in — she's one of six," Wong explains. "So it was my grandma and grandpa and six children in that apartment where, even when it was just my brother, my grandma and I, we struggled."
But for Wong, there's a silver lining to her struggle. "Part of me will always find endearment in that experience in that house, but I think there's also a part of me that found a fire to be able to want to be very ambitious in life," Wong says. "My grandma gave me the tools to see that this kind of context didn't bear heavy weight on my achievement or my success, but that it was okay to dream big and try hard and do great things."
"Because I have a lot of great memories growing up in that house, and to this day, on Chinese New Year, the big extended family, everyone still goes back to that house," she continues. "That house is very rich in tradition, history and memory for everyone in the family."
While Wong says that she's still working through her experiences, the number one thing she thinks of when she thinks about food and her identity is the word "reconcile".
"Cooking fusion foods definitely helps me reconcile two different areas of my identity," Wong says. "It's heartbreaking and also warming to know that I have the power to do that through food."
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