Plotting a food path
While she was growing up in
Ipoh, Yougeswari Subramanian never dreamed that she would one day
own a restaurant overseas. ANITA MATTHEWS samples the curry while
she chats with the restaurateur.
YOUGESWARI Subramanian literally fled her parents when she moved
to New Zealand in 1991. Life with them had not been easy and Youges
had longed to be with her spouse.
Youges’s husband Vijay had joined his sibling in Auckland in
November 1987 when his business venture fell through. “My
five-month-old daughter Santhiya and I moved back to my parents home
in Buntong (in Ipoh) then,” said the 42-year-old mother of
Moving home brought back embittered childhood memories where
Youges, the sixth of seven siblings, was forced to cook and clean in
the family home. Having lost her older sister, Youges became the
only daughter and indirectly burdened with housework.
“Even as a 12-year-old, I had to learn how to budget the weekly
expenses, buy groceries and cook meals daily. I could not understand
why my mother made me do all these things and felt that life had
dealt me a bitter blow at such a young age,” she recalled.
And it was with trepidation that she returned to her parents when
her husband left for New Zealand. Given her parents’ conservative
outlook and the community’s disapproval of a young working mother
with an absent husband, Youges found herself trapped in her parents’
home caring for Santhiya.
“I began sewing saree blouses for a living while waiting for my
husband to send for me,” she said. The day finally arrived and
Youges and Santhiya flew to Auckland.
|Name: Yougeswari Subramanian|
Years spent abroad: 12
Education: Raja Perempuan School,
Current base: Auckland, New
Being in New Zealand was surreal for Youges in the early days as
it had never crossed the mind of the Ipoh-born that she would
someday live abroad. “We arrived in the autumn of 1991 and it was so
quiet here that you could hear a pin drop.”
The early days were spent with her daughter and preparing dinner
for her husband and other folks who shared the same house. Having
worked as a salesgirl at a photo studio and later an accounts clerk
in Ipoh after completing her fifth form at SM Raja Perempuan, there
was never a time that Youges did not work.
In fact, she attributed her former boss at the accounts firm for
sparking her interest in business leading her to complete a two-year
course in accounting. “My younger brother and I pooled our savings
and opened a small provision shop. Later I found out from my parents
that my grandparents were traders and we have it in us to do
business,” she quipped.
Being in a foreign land allowed Youges to revisit her past and
evaluate her future. “For months on end, I use to think of what I
could do from home but nothing materialised. Then it struck me, why
not help one of my housemates make roti canai. He was doing
it daily to supplement his income. So I watched him, tried it the
next day and it turned out beautifully.”
The duo teamed up, and as their reputation grew, were soon
churning out 500 to 600 pieces of roti a week. As the home
business grew, space became a constraint. “A Fijian friend offered
space at the back of her empty printing shop to use and I bought
that space for NZ$500 (RM1090).”
Having installed her little cooker in her new kitchen, Youges
wondered how she could use the empty space in front. “Opening a
Malaysian Indian restaurant in Auckland in 1993 was the last thing
on my mind yet that seemed to be the most logical thing to do.
“I felt led to do it and it dawned on me that my childhood
experience did have a purpose after all,” she confided.
Youges decided to rent the front and clear out the old printing
machines and turn it into a restaurant. “We painted it up, put up
curtains, fluorescent bulbs, got second-hand chairs and built six
Having grown a legion of roti canai regulars across
Auckland, the news that Youges had opened her own makan shop
drew in the crowd. The fact that the restaurant, named Santhiya’s,
is located among a nondescript row of shops in the quiet suburb of
Mount Roskill was no deterrent.
As in any fledging business, Youges had her share of difficulties
and the biggest obstacle was preparing ala-carte dishes. “I had to
learn how to cook tasty meals fast as people don’t like to wait for
food and I tried second guessing what customers would order,” she
said, adding that she serves spicy food unless her customers want
According to Youges, most Indian restaurants tend to cater to the
European tastebud by cutting down on spiciness. She recalled a
Gujarati customer who arrogantly demanded for spicy food and was
humbled by the meal she served. “He complimented me on the curries
and has been coming back ever since.”
After three months in business, Youges introduced the banana leaf
rice, synonymous to Malaysian Indian food but new to Kiwis, on the
Youges is unperturbed if the tables are half empty during
weekdays as it is often a full house on weekends. She explained that
most families prefer to order takeaway during weekdays. Though most
Indian restaurants in NZ tend to be deserted during winter,
Santhiya’s is typically packed and Youges believes that the
cold brings out the curry eaters.
Santhiya’s popularity grew solely by word of mouth and
when The Star visited, Youges confided that it was still a
work in progress.
The place is devoid of fancy furnishings and houses the same
furniture built 10 years ago.
While she had entertained the idea of expanding the business, she
never pursued it, as it would be tough to maintain consistent
quality. “I had helpers when I was pregnant with my son and when I
came back from my two-week confinement, I realised the standard had
Being cook, dishwasher, waitress, cashier and entrepreneur also
helps Youges build a bond with her customers that is implicit in
Santhiya’s staying power. “My clients are all very nice and
they are regulars who visit whenever they are in town from as far as
Wellington in the North and Melbourne, Australia, as well as
Malaysians,” she said, adding that her business would not have
lasted without the support of her long-time customers.
Youges is both proud and amazed to have grown a business from
nothing. “To start a restaurant would mean a NZ$100,000 (RM225, 000)
investment. I didn’t start like that but nurtured this the way I
nurtured my children. I believe in divine guidance and I thank God
for friends who helped me through.”
She has also come to terms with her parents and was glad to be
able to bring them over to New Zealand for holidays, as she does not
see herself returning or retiring in Malaysia any time soon. “I
doubt I would be able to give my kids the education they can get
here. Though I did well in my SPM and got a credit for my Bahasa
Malaysia, I did not get good jobs.”
Youges looks forward to seeing Santhiya off to college and it is
with pride that she is able to offer her children access to tertiary
education that she never had.
Originally published in
The Star on Tuesday, August 12, 2003
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