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January 28, 2020 29 mins

Homesickness can be a potent instigator. For Auria Abraham, a.k.a. “The Sambal Lady,” founder of Auria’s Malaysian Kitchen, a longing for authentic Malaysian home cooking led her on a path to running a popular supper club and food business in Brooklyn. She recounts taking a group of Americans on a very personal food tour of her home country. Find more info about this episode at 

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Speaker 1 (00:03):
The chicken rice, Lady. The rice is perfectly schmaltzy, not
too much, just the rhine amount of ginger, just the
right amount of chicken fat. It's gleaming with oil, it's yellow,
it's so flavorful. But chicken is cooked perfectly. Welcome to
a Way to Go, a production of I Heart Radio

and Fathom. I'm Jarlin Gerba and I'm Pavio Rosatti. Our
guest today is Aria Abraham, founder of Oria's Malaysian Kitchen,
a line of sweet and savory sauces and jams. When
Aria moved to the United States to study film scoring
at the Berkeley College of Music, she never planned on staying,
but life took its turns, and her homesickness from Malaysian

cuisine led her on a path that ended up with
a food business in Brooklyn. She's so passionate about spreading
the word about Malaysian food that this year she took
a group of Americans on a food tour of her
home country Oria. Welcome, Thank you, Pavia. It's nice to
be here. We want to start area by asking you
to tell us why you led a group of Americans

on a trip to Malaysia. Okay, so here I am
in Brooklyn in the United States, where Malaysian cuisine is
very very still new, relatively new to a lot of people.
Here we are in New York City, where you know,
there are a lot of Malaysian restaurants, people have experienced it.
But you go further west and most people have never

heard of Malaysian food. In fact, a woman who lives
in Chicago, when I was telling her about my business,
she said to me, what is Malaysian food? And do
I care? Was what she said. She had no frame
of reference for it at all. So here I am
making sauce and jam and selling it. And even before that,

I always loved sharing the food of my country because
most people haven't experienced it yet. And so they go,
what is it? Is it Thai food? And I go, well,
we use a lot of the same ingredients, but no,
it isn't. And then they look at me and they say,
is it Indian food? And I say close, but no, cigar,
it is Indian food, but with a lot of malays

influenced Chinese influence. And you know, I talk about it
a lot, and I cook it a lot, and I
share it a lot. And it hit me one day here.
I am doing this when the wealth of Malaysian food
is there, and why not let people experience it? Um.
I think that folks are intrigued and curious. It's interesting

and it's nude. It's a relatively newcomer on the ethnic
food scene here and they want to go and taste
something they've never experienced before. And so I am. I
decided I'll take people with me. I go every year anyway,
and friends have been asking me over theres can I
go to Malaysia with you? Can I go to Malaysia
with you? And I've taken folks here and are, but

it's never been this kind of thing where organized a trip,
planned the you know, the the cities that we would
stop at, and planned the dishes that we we would
eat in all the different cities. They're all my favorite things,
and what better way to share them than right there
in Malaysia and like a hundred degree weather and you're

eating a spicy, hot dish, you know. So it's part
of my quest to share Malaysian cuisine and it's the
most fun way to do it, I think, is to
go there and sit on a rickety stool and eat something.
Give us the sort of bird's eye super quick overview
of what Malaysian cuisine is and how it got to
be that way. Okay, so it's a little bit of

a history lesson. Right. So if you look at a
map of Asia, Malaysia is that tiny peninsula that hangs
off the south of Asia. It's geographically it's south of Thailand,
north of Singapore. In the fifteen hundreds, a little town
on the coastline, Calm lack of became a very popular
ports city. Why was it popular because it was sort

of in the middle of the ship journey from Europe
to China. We were right smack dab in the middle.
It was a great place to stop, um, you know,
refill your your restock your supplies on your ships, and
do a little trading and move on. So the Portuguese
landed in Malaysia, where the Malaise had been living peacefully

for eight centuries, and colonized as they did. Yes um.
And after a few years the Dutch came over and said, hey,
we want this port. We'll colonize this. The Dutch colonized
at the same time the Chinese heart of tremendous mining

and trading opportunities in Malaysia. They came from China in
ships full of immigrants and landed on the on the
shores of Malaysia. The British then came and kicked the
Dutch out and said, hey, we'd like this spot. Everybody
wants their piece of Malaysia, that's right. So they landed,
and that says a lot about that particular part of

the world. The British landed, they developed rubber plantations and
they brought people from India my ancestors to come and
work on the rubber plantations because they needed labor. They
needed labor that they had already trained. People in India
at the time had already been colonized by Britain. Everybody
spoke English, right, so they brought them all with them.

So because of this multiculturalism over the centuries, Malaysian food
has become these this mix of cultures. So it's Indian food, yes,
But the Indians learned about aromatics like lemon grass and
ganal and kafir line leaves that they had never used
in their cuisine before, but now they were using them.

The Chinese came with their incredible cuisine from China, right,
But they also learned how to use coconut milk, dried shrimp,
dried anchovy, two flavored dishes. You're making me really hungry.
Um and the malaise learned how to use cardamon and
cinnamon fresh from Sri Lanka. You know that that they

were growing there. And this is Malaysian cuisine. So it's
the United Nations of cuisine, I think, exactly, that's exactly
what it is. So we always say America is a
melting pot. Malaysia is two in its own way, It's
a melting pot. It really is a melting potter pot
food exactly right. When you ask what Malaysian food, it's

not a one line answer. It can't be. When you
understand the history, then you understand the centuries of coexistence
lead to what Malaysian cuisine is today. Can you tell
us a little bit about how you went about planning
this trip, because, like you said, most people do not
understand where Malaysia is on a map, what the influences are.

So when you were thinking, Okay, I'm going to take
a group of people over there, where do you start,
where do you end up, and what do you do
in between? Okay, So the planning of the trip figuring
out where I was going to go in Malaysia was
the easy part because this is a trip that I
do pretty regularly. I go to Malaysia to spend time
with my family, and we drive up the coast, the

west coast of Peninsula Malaysia, and we eat all along
the way, and so this trip was based on that
journey that I had done a couple of times before.
We start in Malacca, which is an hour south of
my hometown, and we eat food that is. Malacca is
the town that was colonized by the Portuguese. There's still
a very vibrant Portuguese community there, and so the food

is Portuguese Malaysian with lots of European influence and stews
and curries and and cooking methods that otherwise would never
have come to Malaysia. We start there, it's sort of
starting at the beginning of Malaysia to me, which is
this town called Malacca. And then we eat our way
north and we end at Penang, which we call the

Jewel of the Orient, and it's some of the best
eating in Asia. I think Penang alone, if someone was
traveling to Malaysia on their own, go to Penang for
five days. Oh that's a good tip because that's how
long it's going to take you to eat your way
around Pinang. The food is out of this world. Um.

There's a dish called Assa Laxa. It's um spicy clear
broth made with mackerel and thick noodles sort of like
udon um, and then all these different toppings on top, caluman,
sea lime, sliced cucumbers, fish, fish balls, um, torch ginger flower,

torched ginger flower. Okay, that's beautiful. You can google that.
It's a beautiful flower that has an incredible taste, and
it's torched. That's the name torch because it looks like
a torch, right, Okay, looks like flaming flowers arrive at
the table on top of your bowl of soup. I
love this, Yeah, And Anthony Bourdain said it was it's

one of his most favorite things that he had ever
eaten in the world. And after eating that, he said
he was spoiled for eating. I wonder if my stomach
grumbas are getting picked up on the microphone right now.
What was it like? What was it like to go

on a trip that you usually do with your family
with a bunch of presumably strangers. How many people did
you have with you? So when I had set up
the trip, I thought, you know, I need at least
six people. I need at least six to make it
worth my time, to make it worth giving up five
days of my vacation because the trip was five days long.
But we only managed to sell three tickets. It was

not easy for me to sell this trip. I think
it's so far away, it's so unknown, and maybe there's
a level of I don't know where I'm going to do.
I really want to go there to eat a cuisine
I actually never heard of. And so we sold three tickets,
and part of me was ready to abandon the trip

because I had decided that six was the number. What
an intimate group you probably ended up with. So it
was great for our first time out to have three people,
three really gung ho folks who are like, take me
to Asia and feed me um. And so what we
did was we kind of folded it into the family.

So that's even better. Were they having dinner with your
mother to which actually, really, I mean, if one of
the goals of everybody's trip is I want an authentic
local experience, what is more local than Mama's at the
table with us, with my nieces and nephews running around,
and you know, and so we had a really nice time.

I was really grateful for that experience of doing it
on those terms because it was yes, it was a
paid trip and I was responsible and everything, but it
was also folded into my time there with my family.
I didn't feel like I needed to completely separate the
separate the two, which in my head was what I

was going was how I was going to do it.
You didn't just have to be the cruise director, that's right,
And it just was so much warmer, so much nicer,
and the end of the trip, you know, these people
were hugging us. It was hard for them to leave,
and it was really really nice by the end of it.
You know, they were family. What were the surprises for

you as somebody was putting this trip together, And this
could be in the relationship of the people that you
were traveling with, or in making discoveries in your own
home country. I see my home country through my lens, right,
and then it's interesting to see it through the lens
of someone who's never seen it before. So there were

things that they were pointing out that I had always
taken for granted, like you know how Surramba, my my
hometown is this small, sleepy town, and yet it's so
vibrant with food culture. I just I grew up there.
I wasn't thinking on those terms. I just knew where
to go to get the curry luxA. I knew where

to go to get the chicken rice um, and I knew.
So it was that. And then it was also sort
of looking at dining in Southeast Asia through a Western lens,
which we just accept. The rickety stools, the tin roof
that starts to leak in the middle of your meal.

You know, you're sitting there, there's a river next to you,
it starts to drain, the river starts rising. Where are
immune to all that? We're just like, let's get the food.
Let's you know, nothing else matters. Nothing else matters. Um,
stray cats, lots of stray cats, stray dogs, depending on
where you are. And you know, I want to say yes,

but don't look at that, just look at this food.
But I think, you know, we can do a bit
better about keeping the animals away at least. And then
there's my niece, my nieces on the floor feeding the cat,
and I'm like, kid, what are you doing? You know?
And I never would have had that thought if there
were not people sitting at the table who were not

accustomed to that. That's interest. Were your guests Were they
looking askance like what's that little girl doing feeding that
stray cat? No, they would say that like is this
is this normal? And I was like, yeah, it is,
um the floor. There's this one chicken rice place in
my hometown. It's called Diamond Chicken Rice. And the reason

why it's called diamond chicken rice is because there's a
woman who her one job is to quarter and chop
up the chicken and put on the blake. And she's
an absolute pro. She stands there for four hours, that's
all she does. And they've been doing this business for
over thirty five years and they are loaded because everybody.

People come from all over Malaysia for diamond chicken rice.
And she's got a rock on her finger. That's just
I mean, it's crazy and what a visual You just
picture her with all those chickens. Oh yes, her hands
are covered in schmaltz. She's very uh, she's tall and

slim and she's beautiful. And she's got giant glasses and
she's standing there. She's chopping this chicken with this rock
shining and all that chicken fat, and the floor is dirty. Right,
And we walk in and I pick up on all
the cues. Right. So when I'm in a room and
I look at people, I know what they're responding to
a reacting to her. I see it without even them

saying it. So they're looking at the floor. It's money,
it's dirty. And I've never looked at it that way,
you know, until I went with people who have never
seen that before. Was it upsetting to you or or
do you feel like you had to justify certain things? No?
I like to to let people have their experience of

it and process it from whatever background they come from.
You're going to process it however you want. At the
end of the day, I think the food and the
family takes center stage. Everybody says that they want as
they want experiences to be as authentic as possible. So
I'm guessing that if I went to that chicken rice

place and suddenly there was sparkling child floors, you would
look and say, diamond lady, what have you done? What
have you done? That's right now. I would never want
to like sanitize an experience for anyone. I want you
to eat where I where I grew up eating, and
experience it. And it's full lists. You know, what were

the highlights? What were some of the great things that
you did when you think back on this trip, What
are the scenes and the things that just flashed through
your minds as the oh my god highlights one of
the Okay, there there two highlights for me and for them.
One was taking them to a place in my hometown
that makes beef noodles. It's um. It's a stud brisket

on top of noodles with a like a dark brown sauce, peanuts, uh,
pickled cabbage, um and beef balls and soup. And I
ate that every Friday afternoon after school with my mom
before we went to the market and then got in
a rickshaw to go home with all the marketing. And

it has stayed the way that they have made it
all these years. I think I was ten when I
started going there. I'm fifty, so they've been making that
at least for forty years. And it was so great
to take them there and to share that with people,
and it was so good and comes in a small

size and a large size, and you know when people
are going to sit down and eat something they've never
eaten before. Some are like, you just laid on me
whatever it is I'm going to eat, and some are
a little more cautious. Start with a small. Yeah, I'll
start with a small, and then then a few minutes later,
can I can? I have another one? Um? And I
love that. That's my favorite thing. You ate something you

didn't know, you were a little cautious about it, and
now you're totally converted. Love it. And the second highlight
is sitting at the bar on the beach and Pennang
watching the sunset before knowing that you're going to go
and have this amazing dinner. As soon as the sun
went down, the beaches and Pinnang are amazing, and you

sit and you watch the sunset and you have a
few drinks and it's just otherworldly. It sounds so magical.

I'm wondering was its smooth sailing the whole time or
were there any hiccups or travel fiascos that you had
to kind of yeah what yah? Yeah, yeah, so we
had not to travel fiasco but directive. Then I gave
everybody was never to drink water that came out of
a tap, just to be safe. Listen, I drink anything

and everything there, but I grew up there and my
system is accustomed to it, and I just was taking
care of people from the West and I just needed
to make sure they were not exposed to bugs or kills.
A trip faster than not being able to leave the bathroom.
Thank you, thank you. Yes. Yeah. So especially a food trip,
especially a food trip, because then you know, if on

the second day of your food trip somebody gets sick
in the next five days, everybody's like, exactly, so we
we don't want that. So I was trying to be very,
very very very careful with that. One of my guests
decided to get fruit, caught up cut fruit from a
roadside stand. I was trying to get her not to
eat it, and she was gung ho, but it was

I think it was day four or something, and she's like, no,
I'll be fine, I'll be fine. And I said, you know,
I really don't want you to do that. I really
really put down the mango, but don the mango, lady,
and nobody always never resist. And you know, it's beautiful
you know, in Asia they have knife skills for day. Right.

The other thing that folks might not have been prepared
for is how hot it is in Malaysia. It's hot
but wearing an air conditioned van. The hotel rooms are
air conditioned, but when you're traveling around, Uh, Malaysians will
sit down and eat a bowl of steaming hot soup
on a and eight degree day because we are convinced

it makes you feel better. Right. I don't think they're
totally wrong, but I don't think I'm totally wrong. Yeah.
And as for me, you know, I make samball. I
don't just all throughout the winter, I don't really crave it,
but as soon as the hot weather hits, I'm eating
more of it. I find I just realized this last
week that when it's hot, I crave the chili peppers more. Yeah,

what did you learn about yourself on this trip? I
always say that I don't like people, and uh, and
I say it a lot um, But I think I'm
wrong about that. I think I like people. Can you
imagine to realize that at fifty um, I think that

I don't like people that I don't know? It takes
a lot for me too, it takes a lot for
me to let someone in um And I think what
I learned about myself on this trip is, you know,
if people have decided to give you five days of
their lives, in general, I think they want to be

around you, they want to be where you're going, and
it's okay to share yourself with folks. I mean, I
imagine that people are asking all sorts of things, not
just about the food. They're asking about how you grew up.
But your home life was like that, your brother and
sisters were like So it probably gets intimate pretty fast,
especially a group of three. I guess that's why it was.

If it was a group of six or whatever it
was that I had planned originally, it might not have
resulted in that. But this was definitely intimate. If you
were telling someone how to plan this trip, if Patty
and I were looking to go and you aren't going
to be there, what would be the piece of advice
that you gave us to help us jump start our
own trip. Don't eat in the hotels. Don't eat in

the hotel, seek out the places. I mean, I've I've
written lists of places for people. Uh, you know, friends
will say, oh, my girlfriend is going to Malaysia for
three days. Where should she eat? I already have it
in an email because I've sent it repeatedly, So you
just copy and paste it. You wrote it for Fathom.
Oh yeah, that's that's right. But yeah, you need to
go outside of the comfort and the hotels are air conditioned.

It's nice. You can eat anything you want. It's the
a c is down to like sixty five degrees. But no,
get out of that. You're going to Asia. Step out
of your comfort zone. Look for the you know the
the there's in Penang. There's a place called End of
the World Seafood. It's at the top of the island.

It's on a cliff. It's you have to go off
the main road and drive on a little dirt road
to find it. Go go, That's where the fish just
jumped out of the sea, the crabs, the shrimp, um.
The food at the End of the World is out
of this world. Yes, so you've talked about the chicken rice,
You've talked about the beef soup. It's the sort of

place where every restaurant has its little specialty. And by restaurant,
I mean like every stand with the tin roof that
leaks when it rains, like you were saying, yes, yes, yes,
exactly right. So I was just talking about this with
my husband the other day. The thing about eating in Asia,
and in Malaysian in particular. A hawker learns how to

make one dish. It's probably something they learned from their family,
and they make one dish and they make it forever.
It's there one thing, right, and so imagine the level
of perfection that they have achieved with this dish. The
chicken rice, lady. The rice is perfectly smaltsey, not too much,

just the right amount of ginger, just the right amount
of chicken fat. It's gleaming with oil. It's yellow, it's
so flavorful. The chicken is cooked perfectly. It's dunked in
hot water. It's only boiled. It's boiled. And then she
chops it up, puts it on a plate and sauces it.
She's been making the sauce. She's been saucing this chicken

for forty years. She's got the perfect balance, the sweet soy,
the sesame, the black soy, the cilantro perfection. These hawkers,
who I have the utmost respect for, have been making
these dishes. This one dish forever. So just this main sorry,
that dinner would be a movable feast, right, go to

one stand for the soup course, then I'd go to
someone else for something else. Okay. So in Malaysia we
have what we call the hawker centers. So it's basically
somebody found a piece of land, put down a cement
floor and a tin roof and and then rents out
space hawker spaces around the perimeter. So you walk in
the middle is full of tables and chairs, uh, and

the sides are hawkers and you walk around and you
pick what you want to eat, and you give them
a table number and they'll bring it to your table.
So you're sitting and you're eating something from this hawker,
something from a hawker over there, and something from somebody
the original food court. Yes, is there anything that you
would want to add to the trip or anything you
would want to do differently? What we didn't do last

time was a cooking class. Perhaps a cooking class and
coal a lump or a cooking class is so nice
because that's something I found when I travel, I like
to come back and recreate or attempt to recreate a
favorite meal. It's a nice way to extend the trip. Yes,
and then there's a wet market. I think that everybody
needs to go to the wet market. We didn't do

this last time, but I would love to take folks
to the wet market just to see how different life
is on the other side of the globe. Would you
define really quickly what a wet market is. Wet market
is an Asian market that sells everything produce. There's a
produce section, there's um, a pork section, a beef section,

a chicken section. In the I guess we call it
a wet market because the the vendors are spraying down
the vegetables and whatever. The floors are all wet. It's dirty.
It's probably the dirtiest place you will experience, um, even
though they're constantly rinsing it off. Well yeah, uh, you know,
the fruit and the vegetables come straight from the farms,

and they have covered in sand and soil, and that's everywhere.
That's all over the floors. You will see fruit and
vegetables that look like they came from an alien from
from you know, somewhere else in a hundred years. You
won't see those things here. Torch ginger flowers torch ginger flowers.
Do have a line of samballs and sauces that you
make that people can buy their sweet and their savory

and you can. I mean, we've covered these on Fathom
and we included them as great holiday gifts for people
who are who love travel and food. Um, so people
can order your food. Yes, these sauces and do they
and they come with little recipe cards recipe cards, Yes
they do. If somebody wanted a starter because they're so
intrigued by what we've told them about malay Asian cuisine

being the u n of food, what would the sauce
be that you think is a good starter sauce for
Malaysian cuisine. I have. I make a lime leaf somball.
It's a green chili pepper sauce flavored with maccruit lime leaves.
Maccruit lime leaves to me, encapsulates the idea of Malaysian
food for me, it's such a beautiful fragrance, um and flavor.

And so with that jar, you can make a hundred
things with it and you'll feel like you're in Malaysia.
Put it on some salmon, stick it in the fridge, sorry,
stick it in the oven and your house will smell
like southeastdays. When people say to you, I want to
eat good Malaysian food, where should I go? What are
the places New York? Or there's a place in l
a that you love. Just the quick hits. Our listeners
are from all over the country. In New York City,

come to New York City. Go to a place called
the Malay Restaurant. It's in Flushing, Queens And that's the
closest thing you'll get to eating in Malaysia, including the
rickety stools and the dirty floor. Are they open for lunch?
Because it keeps hearing my stomach. You have to go
to Queens for the best Malaysian food. And also now

in um in Chinatown in Manhattan is CopM is uh
a Chinese Malay concept. It means coffee shop and uh.
The copy dam here in in in Chinatown makes the
most beautiful Nionia, which is a type of cuisine inside Malaysia,

dishes and desserts. And every time they their Instagram gets
me harder than anything on Instagram. Yeah, so go go
to copy dam right here um in Chinatown. Excellent. Well,
thank you so much, Aria for joining us today. Thanks
for having me it's such a pleasure to be here.
Thanks for making me so hungry. I think we're ready

to go to Malaysia and that's our show. Thanks for listening.
If you like what you heard, please subscribe, and you know,
leave us a five star review. Oh Wait Ago is
a production of I Heart Radio and Fathom. You can
find the details we talked about in the show notes
and on our website fathom away dot com. Don't forget
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fathom away dot com and follow us on all social
media at at fathom Way to Go. Please tag your
best travel photos hashtag travel with Fathom. If you want
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a tourist. I'm Jarlyne Gerba and I'm Pavio Rosati, and
we'd like to thank our producer, editor and mixer Marcy
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