Meet NYC Fancy Food Fellow Finalist: Auria Abraham
She's known as the Sambal Lady.
You may have seen her stirring a hot batch of chili on the Food Network show, "Chopped."
Or you may have heard about her 2011 underground supper club series in Midwood, Brooklyn, with its array of exquisite dishes. You may have even tried her signature product, the all-natural Hot Chilli Sambal.
But to get a true taste of the Malaysian flavor behind the sambal, you need to meet the source of the product: Auria Abraham.
Born and raised in a tiny town called Seremban in Malaysia, Auria grew up in the kitchen with her mother, who cooked sumptuous dishes with Chinese, Indian, Malay, and Portuguese influences.
After coming to the United States to study music, Auria found herself longing for the comfort of the food back home. More than anything, she missed her Mom’s sambal.
So she started Auria’s Malaysian Kitchen. Based in Flatbush, Brooklyn, the company specializes in Malaysian cuisine and a traditional condiment called Hot Chili Sambal.
It was a first step towards her overall mission to help folks discover Malaysian cuisine.
She is one of seven finalists in our Taste of NYC: Fancy Food Fellowship, sponsored by NYCEDC and the Specialty Food Association. She now has a chance to share her passion at this year’s Summer Fancy Food Show, where over 22,000 buyers from more than 100 countries will converge to view a renowned line of specialty food products.
We spoke to her about her culinary inspiration and the challenges she faces as a small business.
How did Auria’s Malaysian Kitchen begin?
It was the dead of winter in NY...and I missed my Mum’s sambal. I called Mum and got a quick refresher on her sambal recipe. It was a typical ‘Mum’ recipe. No weights or measures, no exact method, everything by feel, look, and taste.
So, week after week I’d make a large batch of it, and it never seemed to last long enough. We were putting it on everything: eggs, sandwiches, noodles, bbq, pizza!
After a while, it dawned on me that I would need to make more! I began doing some research and figured out how to scale up the recipe.
I noticed there wasn't a single U.S. artisan maker of Malaysian food-products. All that was available were the preservative-laden, mass-produced, shipped-from-afar packaged foods that didn't do our cuisine any justice. Considering just how incredible Malaysian food is, I figured I had better get to work helping folks discover Malaysian cuisine. Sambal was my first step.
Did you have any culinary or business experience to help get Auria’s Malaysian Kitchen started?
Spending tons of time in the kitchen with my Mum as a kid is probably the single biggest thing that helped me get started. I knew that I knew how to cook. Never mind everything that I didn't know about starting a food business, I knew that what happens in the kitchen would never be a mystery or a stumbling block. So at least that big part of the puzzle was figured out. Thanks Mum!
Once I committed to this journey, I realized that I had jumped into the deep end of the pool and really couldn't even doggie paddle. The learning curve was steep and after 18 months, still continues to be. I am learning every single day. But yes, time in Mum's kitchen made that scary first step seem natural and effortless, and gave me the confidence to begin.
What are some of the major obstacles you face in your day-to-day operations?
One of the biggest obstacles the company faces is sourcing quality produce for our sambals. Red Fresnos in particular can be difficult to find and very costly. Their cost fluctuates dramatically throughout the year and at certain times of the year, they are practically impossible to find.
This year, we’ve partnered with a local farm to grow all of our produce. I receive farm updates telling me when seeds have been sown and we have a target date for when the peppers will be ready; It’s better than winning the lottery!
Another obstacle is a general one for any small business. Some days we are big enough to require a small factory. Other days, working from home and cooking in a shared commercial kitchen fits fine.
For now, it's a little push-and-pull. I'm hoping that organic, natural growth will eventually decide some of these issues.
Are there any common cultural misconceptions that you face as an immigrant entrepreneur?
I think one of the biggest misconceptions that I face as an immigrant entrepreneur and a woman is that I need/want something from the mainstream population. Yes, I am selling a product. Yes, I would like you to taste it when I am at a store demo-ing my products. Yes, I would like you to buy it. But the truth is, I am sharing a part of my childhood, a part of my homeland, and something you would never be able to experience here in your kitchen and in your own home. I am taking you on a journey to the East, with every bite. I believe that sharing good food can be powerful - it brings people together in a celebration of cultures and mutual respect.
Any fun facts about Auria's Kitchen?
Whenever we're in the kitchen making sambal, inevitably there's a drummer, a keyboardist or two, a guitarist, and a couple of singers. At any time, in any sort of life-threatening emergency, we could drop the knives and ladles and burst into song if we had to!
Want a taste of Auria’s Sambal? Here is a list of locations where you can buy her two special flavors.
About the Fancy Food Fellow Series: Each week, we’re featuring immigrant entrepreneurs with a passion for bringing their unique flavor to NYC’s melting pot. Come back next week for another food profile from this year’s Fancy Food Fellow Finalists.