A new Malaysian cafe called Sharmini’s Kitchen is making waves in the farmers market of York, Pennsylvania in the US.
The owner of the cafe is self-taught chef, Sharmini Goins, who was originally from Ipoh, Perak.
The cafe, which was recently featured as one of seven must-eat places in York during the city’s restaurant week this year, is helping to promote Malaysia through its food.
And the enterprising cafe owner is doing so single-handedly. She works alone, with no assistance at the 125-year-old York Central Market.
“I normally cook for 60 people. There is no set menu as such because there is such a wide variety of Malaysian cuisine. Each week, there is a different menu and I will publicise it on social media,” said the 43-year-old who has been in the US for the last 14 years.
The food business was something Sharmini had wanted to try for a long time.
“My regular customers are intrigued by Malaysian cuisine. And because my menu constantly changes based on what’s available, they find that even more interesting. It gives me a chance to introduce a few new dishes at a time,” said Sharmini who learned to cook from her late mother, Ann Treacher, of Penang.
The most popular dishes on her menu now are quintessentially Malaysian favourites such as Penang char kuay teow, rendang, nasi lemak, ghee rice, chicken rice, mee rebus, laksa, satay and roti canai.
“It’s an amazing experience cooking and educating the people here about Malaysian cuisine. I love sharing my recipes and cooking tips with market goers and help them understand and appreciate our dishes.
“They are equally excited when I do cooking demos on stir fried char kuay teow and nasi lemak udang where I used the long grained basmati rice cooked in coconut milk and spices, sambal prawn, egg, peanuts and cucumber,” said Sharmini, who also teaches her customers how to properly shave coconut and how to cook some of the Malaysian dishes.
Sharmini moved to Baltimore, Maryland, 14 years ago. She was there for nine years and worked as an administrator. However, when she decided to buy a house, she chose to settle down in Pennsylvania on advice from friends.
It took her about a year to find her footing in York and finally took the plunge of starting her own business.
“I went for counselling first and later on, a non-profit organisation advised me about business plans. The business talks went on for a while before I really got down to do the paperwork and obtain food safety certification,” said Sharmini, who took courses in entrepreneurship at Pennsylvania State University to prepare herself for the financial aspects running a business.
In 2010, Sharmini visited York’s Central Market to get a feel of the ambience, gauge the crowd and discuss the options and requirements for setting up cafe with the management of the market.
The market proved to be an ideal location for Sharmini to explore her culinary adventure as the location is a community gathering place at the heart of the city.
Sharmini decided to start catering first and presented it at an event called Passport to Flavors in February last year. It turned out to be a huge success followed by great support from social media as people started tweeting and posting photos of her food.
So when she submitted her business plan, everything fell into place with support from Downtown Inc, York’s Business Improvement District Authority. And she finally hung a Sharmini’s Kitchen sign at York’s Central Market late last year.
Her first day business was a huge success and all the chicken curry, nasi mahani, matahari salad, pineapple achar was snapped up within two hours.
This spurred her to come up with a more varied menu.
“I work alone in a shared kitchen incubator and only get occasional help from close friends if I have a large order. What really motivates me is when customers come up and ask how I prepare the dishes. I try to set a benchmark for every dish so that my customers remember the taste. I try not to substitute the ingredients to retain the authenticity,” said Sharmini, who also serves Asian-inspired and fusion dishes.
At certain times of the year, loyal customers get to savour seasonal treats like durian, sago gula Melaka and fish head curry.
“Since Malaysia is a multi-cultural country, I like to introduce different things to my customers through my cooking demonstrations to help them understand and appreciate our dishes,” said the single mother of two.
Sharmini’s Kitchen also serves Asian drinks like iced jasmine green tea, sirap Bandung, chrysanthemum tea and sugarcane juice.
She says she has noticed that more Americans are excited about Asian food these days.
“Food plays an important part in uniting different cultures. As the immigrant population increases, there is rising interest in Asian dishes. This is definitely an amazing moment for me,” said Sharmini, who also does private catering for events and wedding ceremonies.
She says one of the challenges of running the cafe is getting authentic ingredients such as pandan and kaffir leaves, Basmathi rice, gula Melaka, serai and galangal.
“Many of these ingredients can only be found at speciality Asian stores in larger cities like Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York. So, I have to make time to shop at these stores. I prefer to use fresh ingredients and not canned ingredients,” said Sharmini.
Unlike many who take the plunge to begin on a new business with the support and assistance of their spouses, Sharmini’s Kitchen began with a vision and dream of a single mother and blossomed into reality from hard work.
“I saved all I could for a down payment to start Sharmini’s Kitchen, while raising two children on my own, in a land far from my family. And I managed to plod on. Despite that, my priority has always been a mother first before my business or any other responsibilities.
“I’m glad I managed to jump-start Sharmini’s Kitchen. I remember having to work till the wee hours of the morning, with only three hours of sleep and still having to be on my toes the next day, doing chores and other responsibilities.
“It’s not easy to provide the fundamental needs for stability in so many areas, emotionally, spiritually, mentally and looking into the financial needs and running a growing business takes more than just hard work. To me, it takes a person who has the guts to do it, especially as a single mother,” said Sharmini.
“Many people think I’m nuts for pursuing this business. But actually, it’s my desire to utilise my gifts in a meaningful way, to bring joy to my children, family, friends, and customers regardless of my current circumstances that continues to propel me to work harder to reach success, even if I only have myself to depend on,” said Sharmini.
As part of plans to diversify her revenue stream, she says she is thinking of making and selling a range of sauces like sambal, garam masala, dry spices, chutneys, and batik items by December.