In San Francisco, a Penang ‘mamak’s’ tale of rags to riches

KUALA LUMPUR, July 6 — From pushing a humble street cart selling desserts in Penang, Malaysian-born Azalina Eusope is now set to open a 15,000 sq ft restaurant in Twitter’s headquarters in San Francisco’s Bay Area.

A fifth-generation street vendor who once plied the streets of Penang with her food cart, Azalina said she fled a life of poverty some 15 years ago after meeting her American husband in Asia.

In the United States, she has gone from running a stall — the eponymous Azalina’s — at a farmer’s market in San Francisco to having her own line of sauces at Whole Foods Market, an American supermarket chain, and catering for an event attended by US President Barack Obama.

Soon, she will be the operator of her very first brick-and-mortar eatery, which will be in the building that houses social networking giant Twitter.

Professing to come from the “mamak caste” that she once sought to flee, Azalina has now embraced the culture and made it a cornerstone of her cooking style that has brought her success.

“Growing up as a ‘mamak’ girl is not anyone’s fantasy. ‘Mamak’ is usually at the bottom of the caste system back in Malaysia,” she said in an interview with Dark Rye, an online magazine operated by Whole Foods.

“Because of the caste system, ‘mamak’ people are only allowed to do certain things as a profession. “

In Malaysia, “mamak” is not a caste per se, but refers to the Indian Muslim community or those of Indian-Malay heritage. The term is not strictly pejorative although some consider it to be offensive.

Seeking to break free from the purported mould, Azalina said she scored well in all her  school examinations in her ambition to become a doctor.

“But when I tried to go to college, I was rejected,” she said. She did not specify the reason for the rejection in the interview.

After the “devastating” and “heartbreaking” snub, she sought the advice of a teacher to help her escape the life of being yet another cook in a line that traces back to her great-great-great-grandmother.

Her teacher’s sagely advice? Learn to cook better.

“Weirdly enough, she suggested ‘Why don’t you go to culinary school?’ Azalina recounted.

She took her teacher’s counsel and entered a cooking school, before interning at a global hotel chain operating in the region.

Azalina later married an American and followed him back to the US, where she struggled to overcome the culture shock that hit her on arrival.

Azalina Eusope and her husband, Tim. — YouTube videograb
Azalina Eusope and her husband, Tim. — YouTube videograb

Lonely and homesick, she turned to her culinary roots for a reminder of home and was later inspired to introduce Malaysian and “mamak” cuisine to Americans.

She started out with a stall that she set up at a farmer’s market in San Francisco using a US$500 (RM1,500) loan, selling laksa and a “chicken curry bomb”, among others.

But for six weeks, Azalina said, “no one came to eat [her] food.”

She was later chanced upon by a prominent food writer Andrew Knowlton, who then featured her in “Bon Appetit” magazine that listed her among the ten best street vendors in San Francisco in 2010.

From then, her business was catapulted to its current trajectory for success.

Despite her accomplishments, Azalina said that work was far from easy. She often works 18 to 20 hours a day, getting by with just two to three hours of sleep.

Like many parents, she said it was her two children who drove her to go to the lengths she does for her business.

“I want to give them everything that I didn’t have, and to push them as much that I wish that someone would have done for me when I was growing up.”

Azalina’s tale is reminiscent of that common among the country’s non-Bumiputera communities who leave in search of, among others, the education opportunities denied them here.

A World Bank report from 2011 concluded that 20 per cent of Malaysian graduates opt to quit the country, with Singapore cited as the preferred destination.

More than two million Malaysians have emigrated since Merdeka.

Last year, a total 308,834 high-skilled Malaysians moved overseas, with 47.2 per cent going to Singapore, 18.2 per cent to Australia, 12.2 per cent to US and the rest to other countries like UK and Canada.