In early April, I received news that two Auria’s Malaysian Kitchen products had won SOFI Awards. What’s a SOFI Award? The simplest description is that it’s the Oscars of food. For the last 47 years, the Specialty Food Association has put on a competition for Specialty Outstanding Food Innovations. Thousands of submissions come in from all over the world, blind tastings are conducted in NYC and winners are chosen in 33 categories. The awards play a critical role in honoring and advancing culinary excellence and creativity around the world. Auria’s Malaysian Kitchen is the first Malaysian brand ever to win a SOFI award. Ooooops, I mean TWO SOFI Awards.
In late June, at the Fancy Food Show in NYC, the press were all over the SOFI winners, as they usually are. A journalist from Bernama (the Malaysian National News Agency) called me and said the Specialty Food Association had mentioned a Malaysian SOFI winner to him and scheduled a meeting for us. A week later, the article he wrote appeared in one of Malaysia’s leading newspapers. It was early Monday morning in Malaysia and in NY, we were winding down a busy Sunday and getting ready for bed. I woke up to over 3000 friend requests on FB and had a sneaking suspicion something was up!
“Sis, you broke the internet” said my big brother on a WhatsApp group text. Okay, okay – so it’s not a Beyonce-level “broke the internet” but we all have to start somewhere, no?
The news was picked up by almost every news outlet in Malaysia, in print and digital. I had journalists and bloggers calling, emailing, FB-messaging and WhatsApping me. A popular morning radio show called Lite Breakfast with Steve and Shaz called, and we did a 20-minute Skype interview. It was a crazy week – I felt pulled in a thousand directions at once, and fought to keep my focus.
July was a blur of hectic activity – I was consumed with trying to make sure we did enough to capitalize on the recent news. In the midst of all that, we made travel plans to head home to Malaysia and I called to tell Mum our travel dates. Two days later, in the middle of the night, my phone rang. It was the Honorable Mary Josephine Prittam Singh – an influential state assemblywoman from my hometown, known fondly to us as Aunty May, since she’s one of my Mum’s ride-or-die besties.
“Hi Auria, Aunty May. We’re so proud of you girl, we want to do an event to honor you in Seremban. When are you coming? Give me a date.”
Together we picked a date. The event would be a high tea at a beautiful hotel resort in my hometown. Aunty May picked a theme for the afternoon – “Empowered Women, Empower Women” and told me to wear something purple (the color associated with International Women’s Day and with efforts to achieve gender equality). She also told me to prepare a 30-minute talk about being a woman immigrant entrepreneur. 3o. Minutes. Eeeeeeek!
With less than a month to prepare, Aunty May and her team of dedicated ladies jumped into action and put together a high tea fit for The Sambal Lady. They booked a venue, bands, dancers, gymnasts, selected a menu, printed banners, sold tickets, had badges and bookmarks made – and those are just the things I can think of. I bet the whole process was far more involved than I’ll ever know.
On the day of the event, I showed up with Mum, my sister-in-law Jessie, Neena, Nicole and Alison (my nieces) and Joey (my nephew). They sent us to a VIP holding room – that’s what they called it and the kids LOVED being VIPs.
Eventually, everyone but me was ushered into the ballroom. I sat there alone and waited. Half-asleep from jet-lag and half WIDE AWAKE with excitement, it all began to feel sort of surreal. Here I was, back in my hometown – the last time I lived here, I was 22. It felt like a lifetime ago. I tried to remember who I was back then – a young woman without a roadmap hoping for the best in life.
Finally Aunty May came to get me. We walked out into the giant foyer. There was a kompang ensemble waiting – eleven men playing traditional Malay frame drums made out of dried wood and goathide. I’ve only ever heard them at weddings to mark the arrival of the bride and groom. The sound of the drums filled the giant space and we walked into the ballroom together – they’re so deafeningly loud and joyous sounding they took my breath away. What a way to start a party!
Once inside the ballroom, the kompang band stopped playing and a bagpipe ensemble escorted us up to the front of the ballroom. Bagpipes? I know you’re wondering what bagpipes are doing in Malaysia! Did the band take a left turn at Albuquerque? Where they lost? Not at all – Malaysia still has a strong bagpipe tradition left over from our British colonialists.
Thanks Brits – I loved having bagpipes on my big day!
I walked up to the main table and took my seat next to Mum. She shot me a look that said “Is this for real? who ARE you?” At least I think that’s what her look meant. Maybe it meant “My blood sugar’s low, when’s high tea?”
There was a troupe of Chinese dancers (video below if you’re curious) followed by a very spirited gymnastics presentation that Neena absolutely LOVED. I think if she could’ve she would have loved to join them on stage even if she had no clue what they were going to do next.
Aunty May was announced to address the guests. I have to say – she’s the actual big deal, empowered woman at this event. In my teenage years, Mum and I would drive around with Aunty May delivering boxes of food, bus fare, school uniforms plus a little company and comfort to families in need in our town. We worked under the auspices of the local chapter of the Society of St Vincent de Paul. Our mission was to alleviate hunger and make sure the children stayed in school to hopefully break the cycle of poverty. It was some of the most fulfilling work of my life. Aunty May has gone on to spread her singular brand of no-nonsense, get-it-done, five-language-speaking community activism – dedicating her life to eradicating hunger and poverty, and coming up with innovative ways to address age-old problems in our hometown. Thanks to FB, I see all of her daily activities and initiatives. I’m constantly blown away by her selflessness and the joy with which she works tirelessly for her constituents. I look to her as an inspiration as I strive to find my path to giving back in a way that will be meaningful to me – in all these years since I left home, I’ve yet to find a consistent, fulfilling way to make a small difference in the world the way we did back then.
YB Mary Josephine Prittam Singh (her official title and name) spoke about Auria’s Malaysian Kitchen. She talked about how I was a Seremban girl and how it was a Seremban girl that went to NY and came home with these two awards. I began to understand the pride of my hometown and what it meant to them. I always say “I’m a little chicken from Seremban”, and that’s true but small-town Seremban was now on the map!
She invited me up to speak. In my head I was saying “oh please Auria, don’t trip on your sarong on the steps. Don’t trip. One step, two, three, four. Made it.” I spoke for about 15 minutes. I can hardly remember what I said, but I bet it was great. 🙂 I’m glossing over this because I’m trying to get to the best part guys – read on…
Once I was done, I went to walk down those dreaded steps in my long sarong but was thwarted by one of Aunty May’s beautiful team members.
“Please wait here, we have something for you” she said with a demureness that can only be found in Asia.
A tray was brought up to the stage with our State’s traditional Minangkabau royal headdress and chest decorations. If you thought my eyes were huge before, they were the size of dinner plates at this sight. My home state is called Negeri Sembilan which translates literally to “Nine States” – a name that refers to the people of nine townships from West Sumatra that settled the area in the 1400s. The significance of being a woman from Negeri Sembilan was not lost on me – you see, our state is known for the practice of an ancient Malay tradition called Adat Perpatih, where women are given a higher social status than men. As the British poet and playwright Sir William Golding said “I think women are foolish to pretend they are equal to men, they are far superior and always have been.” Seremban girls know this!
At this point, I was ready to plotz from overwhelming wonder at the proceedings. Two women ceremoniously placed the headdress and jewelry on me. Do you remember the scene in Cinderella where her tattered clothes magically transform into a ballgown? Ok, first off, I’m not a fan of Disney movies in general. That’s a whole ‘nother conversation, but WOW was I getting total princess vibes! I wracked my brain for a song to sing (don’t the princesses always sing at this point in the movie?) but all I could come up with was “Girl on Fire” by Alicia Keys. Not really a very princess-y song, is it? But “oooooo-oooo-ooooo-ooooooh, she’s got both feet on the ground, and she’s burnin’ it down” felt kinda right, you know? Thank goodness it was all just in my head.
Everything was a blur beyond that. I remember taking a ton of pictures with lots of different people then walking back to the table to sit with Mum and her
longtime bestie Aunty Khim. You may have heard me talk about Aunty Khim before – she’s been in our lives since before I can remember and is the one who taught me how to make Kaya. I’ve said this before but it bears repeating every chance I get – “thank you Aunty Khim, not just for teaching me how to make Kaya but for being a second mum to us all these years!”
My keeping-it-real nephew Joey called to me from a table nearby “Aunty Auria, Aunty Auria!”
“You look like Maleficent!”
Thanks Joey, for keeping Aunty Auria’s head from getting too big. And that’s how The Sambal Lady became a princess!
A very warm THANK YOU to the following, not only for their work in pulling this event together, but for their tireless work with Aunty May in making Seremban a better place for all:
YB Mary Josephine Prittam Singh, Selvarani Thiruchelvam, Nur Adriana Wong Abdullah, Harjit Jenal, Shamini Kandiah, Gowri Kugathas, Winnie Suri, Mit Juan, Malathi Mohandas, Sharmini Sothilingam, Eija.
The Loke Chan Hoong Dance Theatre, Sri Dasmesh Pipe Band, Kelab Gymnastic Raja Melewar and the Royal Malay Regiment Army Band.