Postcard from Zaharah: Malaysian Afternoon Tea with Syabira

One moment she was in her lab doing experiments and collecting data, and the next she was busy hosting afternoon teas, tending to media interviews and even attending a reception at Buckingham Palace hosted by the King of England.

That was the phenomenal change as experienced by 2022 The Great British Bake Off winner, Melaka-born Dr Syabira Yusoff.

"Life has been full of the unexpected and there's always something around the corner.

"For me now, it is finding how to turn my passion into a career."

Syabira was talking about her newfound career path that had her catapulted from the labs to the glare of publicity and stardom, after the much-watched, tension-filled television series in search of bakers who could rise to challenges within a very short time and yet produce stunning, innovative cakes — with a smile!

Two days ago, I watched the celebrated chef on her new turf on CloudM of CitizenM Tower of London, proudly displaying her delicious selection of Malaysian tea, chicken rendang and tofu pies, roti jala, popia basah and kek lapis to a horde of foodies and influencers.

Among those present at her much-publicised event was 2014 MasterChef winner, Ping Coombes.

And she knows all about the staggering change — rounds of supper clubs, television appearances and of course, book signing events when her book was out. She knows about the challenges and what to expect of the unexpected.

Even if you don't win, the controversies surrounding your dishes were enough to allow you to linger in the media pages long enough to get the attention and be recognised on the streets.

This year's MasterChef participant, Woei John Lee, a supermarket manager from Ipoh, and certainly "That Rendang Lady", Zaleha Kadir Olpin, are more than aware that there's no such thing as bad publicity.

For Woei, one of the judges felt too uncomfortable to eat his "undercooked" chicken, while another judge decided that Zaleha's chicken rendang should have been crispy!

The so-called reality programmes such as The Great British Bake Off and MasterChef have done much to discover Malaysian food and talents that have helped promote Malaysian dishes in very much the same way government initiatives, such as the Malaysian Kitchen programmes and food festival, had done — to put Malaysian food on British tables.

From the diaspora, these emerging talents appear with mother's and grandmother's recipes with added twists and fusion to tickle the British judges' taste buds.

Early last year, 12-year-old Aisya Syahrul was a finalist in Junior Bake Off, wowing judges with a Jalur Gemilang placed side by side with the Union Jack topping for her pie made using her grandma's recipes.

Once in the glare of publicity, one requires some adjustment depending on how much one allows it.

Syabira was looking at vascular ageing and was trying to understand the mechanisms and signalling involved to slow down the process when newfound fame suddenly turned her life upside down.

Now, she collaborates with yhangry, an organisation that provides a platform for talented chefs "to break free from the low-paying, high-stress environments of traditional restaurant kitchens and forge their own paths as food entrepreneurs".

"Our chefs are able to set their own prices, create unique menus, and showcase their talents in a way that works best for them.

"By bringing people together over delicious food and empowering chefs to thrive, we're making a positive impact on the food industry and our communities," said the yhangry website.

Syabira is bubbly with an infectious smile that endears her to all and sundry. There is a vulnerability and humility about her that means she will want to learn from mistakes, take advice and explore new territories without much fuss.

In this culinary world, set in a very challenging scenario where foodies and influencers can make or break you, Syabira, like others who had tasted their newfound fame from reality TV programmes, will find her own path, discovering and rediscovering heritage to entice the local palate.

Syabira was described by one of her judges as a maverick — "nothing rattles her".

The great Prue Leith said: "She is creative. She practises like anything, and she is imaginative. She just has it all. She is a very skilful baker."

Although Syabira wants to put Malaysian high tea on the British culinary map, it is as a baker that I feel she will excel at the most.

Her pastry for her mini rendang chicken pie and jam tarts still magically linger in my memory of yesterday's event.

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