02/01/2013 12:31 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017


Azalina from Dark Rye on Vimeo.

Azalina Eusope lives thousands of miles from where she grew up, but her infectious spirit and almost-staggering immigrant work ethic are introducing hungry Californians to the cuisine of Malaysia, one spice at a time. Eusope was born in Penang, a populous, economically important island off Malaysia's Northwest Peninsula, one of the most diverse food regions in the world. As a result of being part of an ancient spice trade route, Penang cuisine incorporates elements of Indian, Thai, Chinese, Javanese and Sumatran cultural influences. It is, she says, "a bold, spicy, delicious and rich culture of flavors that shaped what I am today."

For four generations previous, Azalina's family had worked as street-food vendors. But Penang, despite its diversity and economic importance, still operates with a rigid social hierarchy, and her native tribe, the Mamak, sits on the bottom rung of the ladder. So despite an idyllic-sounding childhood spent on her family's spice farm frolicking with her family pet, an actual live orangutan named Madu, Eusope wanted something different. But she seemed to have no choice in her destiny; her place on the social ladder trumped her natural ambition.

"More than half my life, I was trying to run away from the culture I was born in," she says. "I was trying to become somebody else." Along the way, the life Azalina was trying to escape ended up bringing her back from despair. It saved her.

Azalina wanted to become a doctor. She studied hard, earning top grades in high school. Her future looked promising, but no Malaysian college would admit a Mamak. She couldn't escape what society had labled her. "It was devastating, heartbreaking," she says.

Her advisor recommended that she go to culinary school. "I didn't want to be another cook in the family," she says. Destiny can have a curious sense of irony.

Now Azalina has a successful business in San Francisco making curries and spice mixtures drawn from the rich culinary history of her people. She gives cooking classes, caters parties, has her own line products (Azalina's), and serves her native cuisine at music and food festivals all over the Bay Area. She even cooked at an event where she served Malaysian cuisine to President Barack Obama. Azalina tirelessly fills her day with cooking, dropping off goods at grocery stores, hauling boxes, setting up tents, dealing with customers, and, at 2 a.m., writing menus and invoices at home, all while taking care of two growing children. Her workdays run between 18 and 20 hours, but she loves it all. She is a true immigrant success story, and her unique cuisine has become part of the great American food tapestry.

The video from Dark Rye was Produced by Hope Wilson and Edited by Jason De La Rosa.