PETALING JAYA: In an inspiring rags to riches story, a Malaysian-born street vendor who once lived a life of poverty is now set to open a 15,000 sq ft restaurant in Twitter’s headquarters at San Francisco’s Bay Area.
The fifth-generation street vendor of ‘mamak’ descent Azalina Eusope was once pushing a humble street cart selling desserts in Penang, until she met her American husband and moved to San Francisco where she is now running a successful business.
“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,” she said.
Azalina said that she wanted to break free from the purported mould, so she scored well in her school examinations to pursue her dream to become a doctor.
However, Azalina’s heart broke when she got rejected by the college she applied for.
After the devastating news, she sought the advice of a teacher who told her to learn to cook better.
“Weirdly enough, she suggested ‘Why don’t you go to culinary school’,” Azalina recounted.
When Azalina married her American husband and followed him back to the United States, she struggled to overcome the massive culture shock that hit her on arrival.
“I grew up in a village, we walked everywhere, we did not have television, and we did not know what a refrigerator looked like.
“The very first time I touched a computer was when I just had my son that was in 2002,” said Azalina in an interview with Mashable.
Azalina said that to overcome the homesickness and culture shock, she would cook the food that she grew up eating. Her hobby eventually turned into a business in 2010 when she opened a shop at a farmer’s market in San Francisco.
“I borrowed USD500 and I started selling food at the farmer’s market. I would wake my children up at 3am and we would pack up the car with all my food and we would go and sell them,” said Azalina.
But she said that for the first six weeks nobody came to eat her food.
Her business later boomed when I prominent food writer Andrew Knowlton featured her in “Bon Appetit” magazine that listed her among the ten best street vendors in San Francisco in 2010.
Azalina moved into catering, events, and then met a buyer that offered her to sell her own line of sauces at Whole Foods Market, an American supermarket chain.
“I want to tell people about mamak and who we are and I want to tell stories through my food,” said Azalina.
“This is the kind of food that reminds me of my culture, my family, my memories.
“You can’t turn it away. It’s in your family and in your soul. Somehow it’s going to come and find you,” she said.
Despite her accomplishments, Azalina said that her work is far from easy and would often work 18 to 20 hours a day, getting by with only two to three hours of sleep.
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.”