Malaysians abroad: Plotting a food path

Posted on August 11, 2003 
Filed Under Anita, The Star

By Anita Matthews

Yougeswari Subramanian literally fled her parents when she moved to New Zealand in 1991. Her husband Vijay had joined his sibling in Auckland in November 1987 when Vijay’s business venture fell through. “My five-month-old daughter Santhiya and I moved back to my parents home in Buntong,” said the 42-year-old mother of two.

Moving home brought back embittered childhood memories where Youges, the sixth of seven siblings, was forced to cook and clean in her family home. Having lost an older sister, Youges became the only daughter and indirectly burdened with housework. “Even as a 12-year-old I had learn how to budget the weekly expenses, buy groceries for the week and cook meals daily. I could not understand why my mother made me do all these things and felt that life dealt me a bitter blow at such a young age,” she recalled.

And it was with trepidation she returned to her parents when her husband left for New Zealand. Given her parents’ conservative outlook and community’s disapproval of a young working mother with an absent husband, Youges found herself trapped in her parents’ home caring for Santhiya. Haunted by her past, Youges took comfort in watching her young daughter bond with the grandparents.

“I began sewing saree blouses for a living while waiting for my husband to send for me,” she said.

The day finally arrived and Youges and Santhiya flew to Auckland. “It was the first time Santhiya was seeing her father since she was born and she refused to go to him.” Being in New Zealand was surreal for Youges in the early days as it had never crossed the mind of the Ipoh-born that she will someday live abroad. “We arrived in autumn of 1991 and it was so quiet here that you can hear a pin drop.”

The early days were spent with her daughter and evenings preparing dinner for her husband and other folks who shared the same house. Having worked as a salesgirl at a photo studio and later an accounts clerk in Ipoh after completing her fifth form in S M Raja Perempuan, there was never a time that Youges did not work.

In fact, she attributed her former boss at the accounts firm for sparking her interest in business leading her to complete a two-year course in accounting. “My younger brother and I pooled our savings and opened a small provision shop. Later I found out from my parents that my grandparents were traders and we have it in us to do business,” she quipped.

Being in a foreign land allowed Youges to dwell on her past and evaluate her future. “For months on end, I use to think of what I could do from home but nothing materialised. Then it struck me, why not help one of my housemates make roti canai. He was doing it daily to supplement his income. So watched him, tried it the next day and it turned out beautifully.”

The duo teamed up, and as their reputation grew, were soon churning out 500 to 600 pieces of roti a week. As the home business grew, space became a constraint. “A Fijian friend offered space at the back of her empty printing shop to use and I bought that space for NZ$500.”

Having installed her little cooker in her new kitchen, Youges wondered how she could use the empty space in front. “Opening a Malaysian Indian restaurant in Auckland in 1993 was the last thing on my mind yet seemed to be the most logical thing to do. “I felt led to do it and it dawned on me that my childhood experience did have a purpose after all,” she confided.

With the help of her brother, Youges decided to rent the front and clear out the old printing machines and turn it into a restaurant. “We painted it up, put up curtains, fluorescent bulbs, got secondhand chairs and built six tables.”

Having grown a legion of roti canai regulars across Auckland, the news that Youges had opened her own makan shop drew in the crowd. The fact that the restaurant is located among a nondescript row of shops in the quiet suburb of Mount Roskill was no deterrent.

As in any fledging business, Youges had her share of difficulties and the biggest obstacle was preparing ala-carte dishes. “I had to learn cook tasty meals fast as people don’t like to wait for food and I tried second guessing what customers would order,” she said, adding that she serves spicy food unless her customers want otherwise.

According to Youges, most Indian restaurants tend to cater to the European taste buds by cutting down on spiciness. She recalled a Gujarati customer who arrogantly demanded for spicy food and was humbled by the meal she served. “He complimented me on the curries and has been coming back ever since.” After three months in business, Youges introduced the banana leaf rice, synonymous to Malaysian Indian food but new to Kiwis, on the weekend menu.

Youges is not perturbed if the tables are half empty during weekdays as it is often a full house on weekends. She explained that most families prefer to order takeaways during weekdays. Though most Indian restaurants in NZ tend to be deserted during winter, Santhiya’s is typically packed and Youges believes that the cold brings out the curry eaters.

Santhiya’s popularity grew solely by word of mouth and when The Star visited, Youges confided that it was still a work in progress. The place is devoid of fancy furnishings and houses the same furniture built 10 years ago.

While she had entertained the idea of expanding the business, she never pursued it, as it would be tough to maintain consistent quality. “I had helpers when I was pregnant with my son and when I came back from my two-week confinement, I realised the standard dropped. Customers have come to expect a certain consistency.”

Being cook, dishwasher, waitress, cashier and entrepreneur also help Youges build a bond with her customers that is implicit in Santhiya’s staying power. “My clients are all very nice and they are regulars who visit whenever they are in town from as far as Wellington in the North and Melbourne Australia as well as Malaysians,” she said, adding that her business would not have lasted without the support of her longtime customers.

Youges is both proud and amazed to have grown a business from nothing. “To start a restaurant would mean a NZ$100,000 (RM225,000) investment. I didn’t start like that but nurtured this the way I nurtured my children. My daughter spent her school going days in the shop with me and as she grew so did the children of my regulars. I believe in divine guidance and thank God for friends who helped me through.”

She has also come to terms with parents and was glad to be able to bring them over to New Zealand for holidays, as she does not see herself returning or retiring in Malaysia any time soon. “I doubt I would be able to give my kids the education they can get here. Though I did well in my SPM and got a credit for my Bahasa Malaysia, I did not good jobs as I was led to believe.”

Youges looks forward to seeing Santhiya off to college in two years’ time and is with pride that she is able to offer her children access to tertiary education that she never had.

Name: Yougeswari Subramanian
Hometown: Ipoh, Perak
Years spent abroad: 12
Age: 42
Education: Raja Perempuan School, Ipoh
Current base: Auckland, New Zealand
Occupation: Entrepreneur

Published in The Star, August 11, 2003

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