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A San Francisco Chef Traces Her Malaysian Roots

How some of the world's best street food ended up in the Twitter building.

MAYBE THE OIL STICK MAN had been there for 25 years, maybe 30. The street vendors of Penang lose count after a while. That morning, every morning, the man kneaded and cut strips of dough, slipped them into roiling oil. They drifted for a moment, then puffed, floated, and bobbed golden brown. It was dark still, hours before people would come to this market for their vegetables or their live-but-not-for-long chickens.

Azalina Eusope was a little girl, 5, 6, or 7, watching the oil sticks pile up under a string of lights. She would ask her father, Muhammed, to buy her one of the fritters, chewy and soft and smelling deliciously of hot grease. Her parents had given her up to be raised by her grandparents, but her father tried to visit her every day. And so he would smile, buy her the oil stick, then shop for ingredients to stock his little noodle stall, a mile or so from here. Most of Air Itam Market is Chinese, which is to say not halal, and Azalina and her father are Muslims­; Mamaks to be specific, Tamil-speaking Malaysians with roots in India. But Muhammed grew up in this neighborhood, spoke Hokkien Chinese, and always felt at home here. His specialty, mamak mee, is a stir-fried metaphor for his culture—Chinese noodles yellowed with turmeric common in Indian cooking, tossed with tofu, coconut fritters, and deliciously dank braised squid, then fired in a hot wok to absorb a sweet potato curry. 

Like many Mamaks, Azalina came from a family of street vendors, four generations of them. But she was not going to be the fifth. No, she was going to be a doctor or a lawyer or a teacher, and have a title and respect. So she studied hard. She got As in school, got into college, and got her hands on a scholarship application. It asked for her ethnicity. “You’re a Mamak. You’re not going to get anything,” someone told her. She learned, though, that she could qualify for a scholarship if she did well in her first 18 months of college, provided she could pay for them. She went to her family, all her aunts and uncles, to ask for money. No one offered.

“Nobody believed I could do it,” Azalina told me. So, at 15, Azalina decided to leave behind mornings with her father, take a job as a cook in a hotel chain, and escape Malaysia, the home that didn’t seem to want her.

She cooked her way around Asia in high-end pastry kitchens, sculpting desserts that were a world away from the street food her family made. After a few years, she married an American and settled in San Francisco. Finally, she was secure, had two darling children, and was miserable. “I didn’t really speak English,” Azalina says. “People saw me with my kids and thought I was their nanny. I was so lonely.” So she stayed home, learned English by watching Cheers, Friends, and The Jerry Springer Show, and comforted herself by cooking the foods she remembered eating as a girl. It was odd, feeling homesick for the place she had worked so hard to leave, but the scents of pandan and star anise brought back memories of riding on her father’s bicycle, of playing with her pets, of going to her family’s spice farm, climbing into the trees when she wanted to cry by herself and be calmed by the taste of young peppercorns. 

Then, she and her husband separated, and unsure of how to support her children, she panicked. Again, she went back to cooking. She drizzled turmeric batter out of perforated cups onto hot pans to make gorgeous, yolk-yellow nets called roti jala. She simmered curries to go with them. She packed it all in her car, set up a stall in a farmers’ market, and, 15 years after leaving Malaysia, became the street vendor she had promised herself she would never be.

I MET AZALINA IN San Francisco in 2012. I remember a tiny woman smiling at me as she offered me a turnover. She turned away, hustling to fry more orders as the dish implanted itself in my brain. Crisp, curry-filled, and topped with blueberries, it was like nothing I’d ever tasted—she was marrying the flavors of her Malaysian youth with a California sensibility, creating a hand pie from local ingredients and memories formed halfway around the world, half her lifetime ago.

She told me her story, told me about her father, and we kept in touch; she always asked after my wife, and later my daughter, before regaling me with stories of Mamak culture. “Ten thousand, Francis. Ten thousand people came to my brother’s wedding,” I remember her saying. The weddings last for weeks, guests coming and going. That’s how you learn to cook, in massive pots every family keeps for the occasion, she told me, eyes softening the way eyes do when you offer a friend a gift. Every wedding has a designated color, and people, by the hundreds or thousands, descend on your village in waves of blue or green or pink or red. I imagined the sight, in love with just the thought of it. She told me these stories of the place she is from in a tone that never betrayed why she left it. 

"She needed to return to Penang, to live for a while among those flavors, to remember and help preserve them before they went away."

Then, a few years ago, her father passed. Azalina was heartbroken, but couldn’t bring herself to go back for his funeral. The ache was too intense: the sense of regret over leaving in the first place, the fear that she’d failed as a daughter. And yet the moment also awakened her. She realized, finally, that the distance from her life now to the life she once lived had grown too great. She wanted to reconnect to her past, to her heritage and to its flavors and dishes. “My grandmother is 106 years old, Francis,” she told me. “Can you imagine how many stories she knows? Who will remember them? I want to remember them.”

It took her three years to finally face down her feelings of guilt, to know that she was ready to visit her father at his burial site. In that time, as she built her business and opened her restaurant, she heard stories from Penang, how it was changing, how street vendors were moving away, displaced by new shopping malls, how their kids didn’t follow in their footsteps. She knew she needed to return to Penang, to taste the food again as it tastes there, to live for a while among those flavors, to remember and help preserve them before they went away. And so, in 2016, she decided to go back to Malaysia, for the first time since she’d started selling food on the street, since her memories of home had started to keep her afloat. 

AZALINA ARRIVED IN PENANG a few days before I did, and planned a trip full of visits with family and farmers, makers and vendors, to take in the heat of coal-fired woks and the wisdom of elders. As soon as I walked out of the airport, I smelled a sweet, tropical smell in the oil-thick air, smoky and fruity and rich. “Coconut husks,” Azalina told me. She waved her hand toward the hills, where the sun was about to finish its set. “People in the villages burn them to keep the mosquitos away.”

I filled my lungs with it. “It’s amazing,” I said, smiling, grateful to be here.

“Well, I’m glad you think it’s amazing,” Azalina said.

Azalina and her jolly-faced brother, Daus, wanted to make sure I had something to eat right away. We got in Daus’s car, and soon I felt the terrible thrill of buzzing by men, women, and children on motorcycles to play kiss-kiss with oncoming traffic. He pulled into a roadside restaurant—really three walls and a roof—radiating fluorescent light and spicy smells to the world. It was just dark, but the buffet was already nearly empty after a throng of Ramadan fast-breakers had their way with the food. The curries were delicious, humming with cinnamon and lemongrass, reminding me how vibrant spices are when you’re eating them in the places that grow them. On the way out, we walked past a booth of women in electric-red headscarves, their plates covering both the table and the empty seats between them, as they laughed their way into the night.

The next morning, Daus drove us up into the hills of Penang to see a durian farm; the owner, Song Hai, had been their father’s best friend. In his mid-80s, silver hair immaculately coiffed high on his forehead, he could have been the president of a small nation retired to the country. He greeted us warmly and took us up the steep slopes of his farm, pointing at nearly ripe rambutans, like sweet sea anemones on trees. As he talked, I looked over the property. It wasn’t a farm in the way I’d imagined. There were no ordered rows, no carefully rotated crops, no obvious signs of people making the earth do their bidding. Instead, Song Hai calls himself a mother to his trees, and knows each one of them; he pointed to one, hundreds of feet away, and told us the year it started bearing fruit. Azalina marveled at his knowledge, and he smiled.

“My father used to take us up here on his bike,” Azalina said. “We had to wear helmets in case the durians fell on our heads.” She’d never thought much more of this than as a pleasant place to get away from the heat of the lowlands, but this visit felt full of metaphor and meaning. A durian tree grows for 30 years before it gives fruit; Song Hai is the fourth generation of his family to care for these trees. It’s not clear if there will be a fifth.

 

Song Hai opened a durian for us. He apologized that it wasn’t quite what he wanted it to be, insisting on opening another one, even as Azalina called out to him, “Uncle! Uncle!” to assure him it was perfectly delicious. Its flesh was so soft, like holding a banana pudding in your hands, a banana pudding that was hung over, possibly still drunk, and running with a rough crowd. Durians are famously pungent—you might say stinky—and I understood in that moment that they’re not to be nibbled on. To really taste the creaminess, the sweetness, the mix of every tropical fruit you can think of rolled into one, you have to dive in, get it all under your nails, and commit to it. That’s how it becomes a pleasure.

As we left, Song Hai told Azalina and Daus that it had been so good to see them, and they exchanged warm looks. Then he said to Azalina, directly, that she was missed when her father passed. He looked at his feet, avoiding her eyes, then turned and walked back up the slope.

"It’s always hard to leave the place you call home. Sometimes, it’s harder to come back."

Driving back to town, Azalina spotted some tables of fish, splayed open and drying in the sun. We stopped. The shopkeeper took us around back, where he and his wife shower salt onto small fish in massive primary-color tubs. “I love this work,” the shopkeeper said, and when Azalina asked how his wife felt about it, he replied, “Well, she loves me, so she likes it too.” The man was 90 years old, and the third generation of his family to preserve fish. There won’t be a fourth, but you probably already guessed that. Azalina walked back to the car slowly. “Seeing these people doing this makes my heart bloom,” she said. “But it makes me sad to know these things are going away.” 

I WONDERED, THOUGH, if there was another source of sadness. Back in San Francisco, Azalina’s energy and smile were constant and kinetic, but here, I could sense a distance, an interiority in her being. I thought back to that odd goodbye at Song Hai’s farm. It turned out that her return to Penang hadn’t been easy. As she told me stories about her father, as she revisited market stalls, she relived the memory of the last phone call she had with him, when they both realized that they would never see each other again. She described to me how her sense of guilt swelled. She struggled to explain to her family why there had been times when she couldn’t send money back home to help, and they didn’t understand why she didn’t come back for her father’s funeral. Her grandmother—the grandmother she so wanted to see, whose stories she came back to hear and to commit to memory—was so upset she would barely speak to her, even as Azalina sat dutifully at her feet. When she and Daus took me to lunch one day, she didn’t want to eat, nervous that people might see her and whisper that they saw her cheating during the daylight fast. Daus marched into the restaurant, scoped out the place and gave an all-clear, but Azalina was still uncomfortable, feeling unsure and judged and watched. It’s always hard to leave the place you call home. Sometimes, it’s harder to come back.

Still, with Ramadan drawing to a close, there was also much beauty as family drew nearer. A couple of nights before Hari Raya, the celebration that ends the month of fasting and repentance, Azalina invited over some aunts and uncles to memorialize her father in a ceremony of atonement and, she hoped, of closure. One, two, then eight and nine people came to Daus’s house. There were so many salaams, so many hands kissed, foreheads touched, and suddenly 25 people were in the room. Some of the uncles began chanting, and soon the sound of four voices on four intertwining paths, praying for mercy and for those who’ve passed, met in harmony as they recited a long passage of the Koran.

And on Hari Raya, I followed Azalina as she paid visits to Auntie With the Coffee Cart, and then Spice Farm Caretaker Uncle, and then Uber Driver Uncle, and then and then and then, in a day of feasting and family. One of these uncles, Hamid, talked to me about the tradition of going from house to house, how this day is about letting bygones be bygones and starting a new year together. “If your family is broken up, you have nothing, lah,” he said.

BUT BYGONES DON’T just go away. One night, Azalina excused herself from the family. We went to the Gurney Drive hawker center, 12,000 square feet of food stalls lighting the night like a pinball machine. Azalina sighed, barely picking at the food. “Maybe it was my father that was the glue to tie me to this place,” she said. “I try to cook the food that reminds me of my childhood. But I’m not a child, and I don’t know who I am here anymore.” She was thinking about cutting her trip short. It was a shock. Not just that the indefatigable Azalina suddenly seemed tired, but that it seemed she might be giving up on her own story, on capturing and saving the collective memory of this place.

Another night, at a different market, we got in line for a char kway teow vendor working a wok over a barrel of flaming coals. He sizzled rice noodles in lard, tossing in chili pastes, sweet Chinese sausage and shrimp, adjusting the fire with a little electric fan clipped to his coal vent. The scent of pork fat bloomed with every order, mingling with the smoke, and I was tantalized. Azalina wasn’t going to eat it, so she walked up and talked to the cook.

His name was Poon, he looked to be in his 60s, and he had been here for 20 years. But for 19 and a quarter of them, he was an assistant, chopping sausage and taking money. He got his big break on the wok only eight months ago, and he was trying to make good on his training, making this one dish over and over.

“Wait, he stood there for 19 years to get ready to cook noodles?” I asked Azalina. She laughed, wryly. “This is why I can’t be a cook here,” she said. It was a joke, but she was right. Her father, Song Hai, the fish-drying man, Poon—they created this cuisine by putting the time in, generations’ worth of time; by being situated and rooted; by always being the same person in the same place. She could never be that person.

But. That same night, another auntie and uncle had taken us to dinner. There was a wait at the restaurant, so we went for a walk, coming to a rice paddy, the intense green pulsating in the breeze, like breathing. We smelled that coconut husk smoke, and Azalina’s curiosity took over. How is this harvested? What varieties are for flour or for table rice? Her uncle showed her a sheaf of grass, and she pinched at the husk to reveal a tiny drop of milk and a speck of white. She tasted it and her uncle laughed. It was barely there, a half-formed grain of rice, but it was sweet, announcing the presence of calories, food, life.

A Food Lover's Guide to Penang

Back at the restaurant, we ate a tripe salad—“village food,” Azalina called it—warm and chewy, punchy with hot chilis, lemongrass, tomato, onion, salt, and tart calamansi juice. Azalina took a bite, then another, growing excited. She smiled, then looked into the distance, her cook’s brain working. “I would skip the tomatoes. But add roasted peanuts, some ginger buds, and lots of herbs,” she said, imagining the taste of this new dish as she spoke. “Yeah, that’s how I would do it.”

Listening to her describe this creation, I realized that Azalina may be cooking the food that reminds her of her childhood, but her food is of her present, of her imagination, and of the memories she chooses, not the memories she is saddled with. If, as the cliché goes, cooking is love, then some part of it must be about showing love for yourself, and the story about yourself that you want to tell. And the story of her food is not that she stayed in Penang and preserved the place through constancy and muscle memory, but that she left Penang and preserves its spirit, taking it with her across the world.

On the morning of my departure, so early it was still dark, Azalina took me to Air Itam Market. Uncle Hamid came as well, insisting he help see me off, even though he was visibly uncomfortable as we walked by several stalls where pigs hung, about to become pork. But that oil stick vendor was there. Maybe he’d been here for 55 years, maybe 60. He was kneading and cutting strips of dough, slipping them into roiling oil. I watched the oil sticks pile up under a string of lights. I offered to buy one for Azalina. She looked at her purse-lipped uncle, and demurred. But as we walked away, she turned to me and said quietly, “It’s OK, Francis. I’ll come back for it later.”

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