It was an emotional day in the kitchen for MasterChef’s Melissa Leong, who was brought to tears after tasting a contestant’s nostalgic Malaysian curry dish.
And viewers seemed to be welling up on their couches at home along with her.
Food writer Mel — who has been credited for breathing new life into the competition — was overcome with emotion on tasting Poh’s dish, with memories of her mum’s cooking coming flooding back.
The reaction perfectly encapsulated Mel’s emotional connection to food, with fans gushing over the moment on Twitter.
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Monday’s Mystery Box challenge saw the top six tasked with creating dishes inspired by the colours of a Rubik’s cube, with Poh selecting red represented by chilli on the plate.
Dishing up a flavour-packed chicken and potato curry, which Adelaide-based cook Poh paired with herbed fried rice, fried whitebait, a red onion and chilli relish and (slightly undercooked) roti, Mel remarked that it tasted like “home”.
“If you come from South East Asia, it’s a taste of home, if you come from somewhere else, it’s a taste of soul and history and heart, and that’s what we love about your food.”
“The balance of flavour and the depth of flavour you’ve managed to achieve in 75 minutes it’s impressive, and I think you’ve done an incredible job honouring your heritage,” she said, her voice quavering.
“I think it’s really special … and I’m really proud to eat food like this,” she said, lowering her head as her eyes filled with tears.
“I’m actually crying with joy, and that doesn’t happen very often,” she explained.
As Poh returned to her bench, judge Jock Zonfrillo asked where the emotion had stemmed from.
“What is it about that specifically that made you cry?” Jock gently asked Melissa.
“I really miss my mum, and this is food she cooks,” the glamorous star responded through tears.
“The way she can honour the accuracy of the flavours and the textures is absolutely spot on … Regardless of your culture, what she put in to this cook, that’s what we look for here,” she said, referencing frontrunner Poh.
Poh, who comes from a family of proud Chinese Malaysian home cooks, had commented earlier in the episode that she was excited to share a slice of her heritage with the judges, particularly Melissa.
“Melissa and I have had very similar upbringings and there’s no doubt that food plays such a huge part of growing up in that part of the world … I love that we share this story, so it’s nice that I can give her a piece of that today,” she said.
After the judge’s strong reaction, Poh, too, struggled to hold back tears.
“There is no higher compliment I could receive than someone reacting like that to my food,” she later said to the camera.
“ I don’t think that people can react to food like that unless they feel that it’s been made with that love, so that’s a really nice feeling.”
During Sunday night’s elimination challenge, Melissa had offered a similar sentiment after smelling the aromas of Poh’s inventive lettuce cup with sago dumplings and prawn crumble.
“The smells that were coming from your bench today made me a little bit ashamed that I don’t know more about my heritage,” Melissa had told the season one runner-up.
“It’s always a privilege when you bust out those recipes because we get a little glimpse of the love that your family shows you through foods, so thank you.”
Of course, Poh’s curry sent her straight to the top 3 to battle it out for immunity, along with Laura, whose white dessert wowed, and Reynold, whose moss-inspired sweet dish again blew the judges away.
MasterChef: Back to Win continues Tuesday night from 7.30 on Ten.