Welcome Merchant had the privilege of speaking to Chef Sangeetha Malar from Sangee’s Kitchen about her journey towards fulfilling her cooking aspirations. A single mother of three children who migrated to Australia in 2018 with a dream of becoming a chef and one day owning a food trailer.
The beginning stages of a food journey
Sangeetha gained her food knowledge from her father who owned a restaurant in Malaysia which grew her curiosity towards the culinary world. Upon arriving in Australia, her first job was waitressing as qualifications once recognised in Malaysia were seen as invalid in Australia. Many refugees, people seeking asylum and new migrants face this issue as their previous experiences are not acknowledged in a new country. Sangeetha mentions she has a certificate in food safety and some other basic qualifications but not in commercial cookery. However, one of the refugee help centres assisted her in gaining a position as a food attendant which she was overjoyed about. This allowed her to get into the hospitality industry and be able to support her three children who were still in school at the time. It provided her with the necessary experience required to progress in this industry as handling food and workplace health and safety rules were managed differently in Australia.
Gaining vital hospitality experience allowed her to seek further employment as an assistant chef. Despite gaining this opportunity to further her skills, the arrival of COVID-19 meant all customer-facing jobs had to be shut down. Sangeetha states she was left without any source of income and no government assistance during this time. This uncertain time inspired her to cook her father’s recipes at home for her friends in the community. She prepared a small menu that gained popularity amongst the community providing them a taste of home. The encouragement from her community made her continue cooking her famous curry which everyone happily paid and returned for countless times. Her fresh handmade fragrant spices to accompany her clay pot curry rice also known as Satti Sorru grew in popularity among the community. The continuous support and belief allowed Sangeetha to follow through with her passion.
While keeping herself and her family afloat in the pandemic, Sangeetha met Marjorie, the founder of Welcome Merchant, who believed in her ambitions and helped her further in her journey. This led her to collaborate with Marjorie and continue her dreams of becoming a chef. Marjorie referred Sangeetha to Ignite, who helped her start her home catering business from home. This then led to her being introduced to the Foodlab program, where they educated her on how to manage and set up a functional kitchen when it comes to running a catering business. These organisations helped her to start catering for larger crowds through the events run by Welcome Merchant and Foodlab. She also excitedly mentioned an opportunity to cook on the show, The Cook Up with Adam Liaw which is set to air on the 20th of June on SBS. The effort put into establishing her catering business hasn’t gone unnoticed and has provided her with opportunities to further her goals.
Challenges faced when starting fresh
Despite the immense support she received from her community, Welcome Merchant, Ignite and Foodlab to name a few, Sangeetha faced challenges in starting her food business. The lack of connections made it difficult for her to know where to begin on this business journey. She also realised that food businesses found it hard to trust her when it came to catering due to not having experience in Australia. She further explains that her financial situation also made it difficult to gain facilities to pursue her catering business. She goes on to explain that there wasn’t a continuous stream of catering jobs aligned for her which would have helped financially. Sangeetha also stated that she is unable to gain her Australian qualifications in commercial cookery currently due to financial constraints but hopes to do so one day.
New and Popular Malaysian/Indian dishes
Sangeetha’s Malaysian/Indian dishes are a hit among her customers. The most popular dish is her chicken curry which will be served at the Refugee Week Dinner event. Some of her other popular dishes are dosa with chicken curry, vegan dosa with mashed potato and a new favourite Laksa curry which is a Malaysian/Chinese dish. Her favourite dishes to make apart from the chicken curry are a range of different Asian fusion dishes for her customers to try and explore new flavours. Asking her about any new dishes that may be added to the menu, Sangeetha happily stated there are dishes in the works for her customers to try one day. She also mentioned a new dish she is currently testing out called Bamboo biryani which might be the first to be sold in Australia. The only thing stopping her from creating new dishes is the financial constraints of getting a permanent kitchen. She says having proper space to store her ingredients daily would be helpful instead of a temporary stall.
Despite being unable to get a rented space to cook from, Sangeetha is nothing but grateful for the position she is in. She wanted to thank her children and the Welcome Merchant, Foodlab and Ignite teams. Without their assistance and commitment to help her succeed, she wouldn’t be where she is today. In the future, she hopes to own a food trailer to sell her best-selling dishes to her customers and we wish her all the success in fulfilling her food dreams.