When she was 15, all Azalina Eusope wanted to do was leave Malaysia. "I did not want to be a fifth generation of street vendor," she says. After working in six different countries, she ended up in San Francisco, where making and selling Malaysian street food reconnected Eusope with her past. She is the chef and owner of Azalina's.
Francis Lam: I think a lot of people look at food vendors, street carts, food trucks and all that as a trendy thing. Or they see it as a very transient thing. People come and it's like the one job they can get, so they work at it for a few years until they can get out of it.
But you come from older stuff than that. You come from a family that has been street vendors for four generations before you in Malaysia. What was it like growing up in a family like that?
Azalina Eusope: I despised my childhood. I did not want to be a fifth generation of street vendor.
Growing up in Malaysia, as much as it's a taboo, we do practice the caste system where it says on your birth certificate what ethnicity you are and what community you come from. From there, you are limited to many, many things that you can do, even though you have high potential.
Even though we made food for a living, we grew up in a harsh environment. It was just hardships and poverty. I didn't see myself wanting to be part of this community. We were made fun of -- there were a lot of slurs being thrown at us -- and that's something that I didn't want. I've been trying to get away as much as possible from it.
I left Malaysia when I was 15 to pursue something else. I wanted to be a lawyer, a doctor or a teacher. Those were the high, well-regarded jobs in Malaysia at that time. But with no money, no experience, no contacts and no network, I ended up going to Singapore and did an apprenticeship for pastries. After that, I left Malaysia and traveled and worked in six different countries before I ended up in the U.S.
That is when things just spiraled down. As a person, I felt I had lost my identity because I was living with a very superficial personality. I was just trying to be something else, which I was not. The food that I grew up eating somehow came back to me and brought me back to the person I was. That was about 3-and-a-half years ago.
Just looking around, there was no Mamak-style street food in San Francisco. I decided to just dive in and see what would happen from there. The food that I grew up eating made me feel whole as a person, with a better understanding of who I am.
Somehow, from there, I embraced the culture that I so, so didn't want to be in. Now all I wanted to do was just talk about Mamak food, Mamak people and who we are, why I'm doing what I'm doing, and all these great four generations before me, all these fantastic things that they have done that had an impact on the food society in Malaysia, especially my dad. He's had such a tremendous impact on the food culture in Malaysia.
That's exactly where I'm standing right now. I'm trying to do the same thing that the four generations before me have done. I feel like I'm doing it on the right track. It's growing, one step at a time.
Azalina's recipe: Malaysian Nachos
FL: It's so interesting that you talk about really wanting to leave this culture, but then when you did, feeling estranged from it and feeling like it's the food that could bring it back to you and maybe help you see it in a new way. Do you see where you came from differently now?
AE: Absolutely. I see where I came from with a very different perspective right now. I decided just to sell food and use food that I grew up eating as a channel. Hopefully it will give some light to Mamak people. There are some of them who have successfully gotten away rebelliously like me, but people like my brother and my cousins are still there. They're stuck. They can't do much about it. They either work in a factory, sweep, or they sell food on the street.
But I'm lucky enough that I'm here in San Francisco and doing what I'm doing. This is a mecca of food culture here, so that's what I'm trying to take. I'm not looking at the negativity. I'm looking at the positivity that I've grown up into.
Our culture is so amazing. Our weddings still have 10,000 people in one room, and celebrating and blessing everybody. You cook for 7 days, and you have a wedding for 7 days -- the food, the ingredients and how loud we talk to each other. People always think we're fighting. But we're not fighting; that's just the way we talk to each other.
Coming from from a spice-rooted family, everybody comes to us if they need advice on using spices -- how to harvest them and so forth. We are basically the advisers for food culture in Malaysia. That's so amazing. I did not see it when I was growing up. All I saw was just the poverty that we had.
FL: Here in the U.S., it seems like you are really making the most of the opportunity that you have. What's a typical day like?
AE: I spend a lot of time in the kitchen. I get up at 2 a.m., I get to work by 3 a.m., and I start getting everything ready before my staff comes at 7 a.m. By the time they come, I'm already cooking things that take a really, really long time to make. By the time they come, I'm still there in the kitchen.
I'll do all my deliveries. I love to meet the buyers that have partnerships with us just to see how things are. Then, in between, I'm dropping my children off at school and I'll come back again. We have high-profile events. I'm curating events. I'm taking care of that. I'm still sending emails in the meantime.
Usually in my day, I don't leave my kitchen until 10:30 or 11 p.m. When I get home, that's when I'm checking email and doing invoices. That's a very typical day for me.
I love it. It's so important that I still feel in love with what I do. It's just been 3-and-a-half years. I didn't grow up making Mamak street food. It's just here the last 3-and-a-half years trying to figure out how to make this Malaysian food almost the same as the way I have eaten it in Malaysia.
Francis Lam is the host of The Splendid Table. He is the former Eat columnist for The New York Times Magazine and is Editor-at-Large at Clarkson Potter. He graduated first in his class at the Culinary Institute of America and has written for numerous publications. Lam lives with his family in New York City.