By Kaylin Eu | 4 Sep 2023
Growing up in the outer suburbs of Melbourne, I wasn’t surrounded by many Asians aside from my family. The bond to my heritage back then wasn’t as strong as it is now. But I have always felt a strong connection to the food.
As a family, we would roll popiah (fresh spring rolls) together. We would frequently have nasi lemak (rice cooked in coconut milk) as a picnic food. And I really loved mee siam (spicy stir-fried vermicelli) – my favourite dish of grandma’s.
As I got older, I longed for a stronger connection to my roots and to my family. I realised that I could create this through food. In Melbourne, I would cook dishes like nasi lemak for my friends, and they loved it! I continued to do the same after moving to Berlin, where the scarcity of Singaporean and Malaysian food made me truly miss the tastes of home.
Then I thought, maybe some other people might enjoy this food too. That’s how I decided to launch a pop-up restaurant, featuring the soulful cuisines of my heritage.
Following in my family’s footsteps
In the 70s, my parents moved from Singapore to Melbourne, where my siblings and I were born and raised. My dad’s side of the family is from Ipoh and Penang in Malaysia, and my mum’s side is Peranakan. The medley of flavours I grew up on became big influences in my own cooking.
We used to visit relatives in Singapore once a year, in the East Coast and Katong area. On those trips, it was so much fun to get to feast on all sorts of amazing hawker food.
Soon after moving to Australia, my parents set up a stall at local markets selling classic Singaporean and Malaysian snacks such as curry puffs and fried spring rolls. They sold ice kacang (shaved ice with red beans) as well. My grandma and aunties would sometimes be over to help out. Some time after, my father started producing tofu – he was one of first to do so in Australia – and that became our family business.
In my late teens, I got to travel around Europe. When I landed in Berlin, I felt a special connection to the city, a comfort and freedom I had never experienced before. A couple of years after university, I decided it was time for a change and moved to Berlin in 2015.
I continued to work in cafes for some time. Then, an enticing opportunity presented itself one day – to create a pop-up restaurant experience. I’d always found it really satisfying to cook something from my heart and watch people enjoy it. This was a chance to share the food I love with a wider audience.
It’s so funny how I was following exactly in my parents’ footsteps – opening a pop-up food business in a foreign land – even though I had never planned it that way.
An opportunity too good to be true
My first-ever pop-up was at a bar down the road from where I lived. I had just enough money for ingredients and used items like ikan bilis (dried anchovies) I had carried back from Singapore. It was very nerve-racking to cook for paying customers. I made 30 portions. Somehow, friends came with their friends, and we sold out. Everyone loved the food, and that just motivated me to keep going.
I named my pop-up Ma-Makan, which translates as ‘Mum, eat’, something that my mother would say to my grandmother when the family sat down to a meal.
At the start, I was still working full-time as a barista and would have my pop-ups once every month or two. Eventually, I quit my cafe job and ended up doing a weekly pop-up at a friend’s Thai restaurant. I definitely dreamt of having my own permanent space, but navigating the paperwork and logistics seemed scary and beyond my depth.
In 2018, Ma-Makan had the pleasure of catering for the Singapore Embassy in Berlin.
And then one day, my friend at the Thai restaurant called me and said, “Kaylin, do you want to take over the space? I’m ready to move on.” I was like, “Oh my God. I’m not ready.” And yet, the space already had equipment and a customer base. It had a great location in Kreuzberg, on the edge of a town square called Lausitzer Platz. The pedestrianised square frequently hosts markets and festivals, and it’s a hip area with lots of nice bars and little shops.
The opportunity was too good to be true, so I said yes. But I had only around two months after she closed to set everything up. I launched a fundraiser online for equipment and renovations. Thankfully, lots of people donated, and I raised close to €12,000. After some scrambling, we pulled everything together and officially opened in November 2022.
Since 2017, Ma-Makan has offered Berliners a taste of Singaporean and Malaysian cuisines.
Learning the ropes as a first-time business owner
The hours and the physicality of working full-time in a kitchen is really hard. Initially, I would spend 14 hours a day on my feet, five or six days a week.
Then there’s the multitasking. As a solo owner running my first business, I’ve had to make mistakes and learn from them along the way. I’ve had to juggle all aspects of the operation, taking care of the finances, the staff, the administration, the marketing. That said, I’m really grateful to have an amazing team of around 10 people that are invested, enthusiastic and supportive.
A lot of the food is very labour-intensive. The rempah (spice paste) for curries takes a long time to make from scratch. Even something as deceptively simple as sambal (chilli sauce) is a lot of work, and you need to be able to endure all the onions and chilli dust.
Thankfully, I’m now able to source all our ingredients within Europe. Because the Netherlands has a large Indonesian community, I can get things like belacan (fermented shrimp paste) and candlenuts from there. We import our kopi (Southeast Asian coffee) through the UK, and Berlin has Vietnamese and Thai communities, so I can obtain fresh pandan and daun kesum (Vietnamese coriander) locally.
Flavours that connect you with home
Ma-Makan’s menu changes every few months, but the nasi lemak is a staple that always stays. Ours comes with achar (spicy vegetable pickle), which was my favourite accompaniment that grandma made. Other popular dishes include ayam goreng (fried chicken), Hainanese chicken rice, and kaya toast, featuring our very own house-made kaya (coconut jam).
Not everything is completely traditional. We’ve created vegan versions of rendang (braised meat) and laksa (spicy rice noodle soup), because there are a lot of vegetarians and vegans in the city. At weekends, we serve kaya croissants. And to shake things up, we sometimes make cocktails like kopi-tini and pandan piña colada.
It’s been really lovely to interact with the Singaporeans and Malaysians in Berlin that seek out Ma-Makan. I guess it’s no surprise that food has brought us together. After all, if you’re from Singapore or Malaysia, you were born a foodie, right?
One Malaysian auntie said eating at Ma-Makan is better than being in Malaysia because here you get the best of both the Singaporean and Malaysian culinary worlds. That was probably a very generous compliment, but it’s always nice hearing people saying that our food feels just like home.
To all Singaporeans reading this that are back home, I hope you know how lucky you are to be able to enjoy all that wonderful food in Singapore!
Kaylin is the founder of Ma-Makan, a Singaporean and Malaysian kopitiam (coffee shop) in Berlin that celebrates the food of her heritage. All pastes, condiments and soup stocks – such as kaya, sambal and laksa – are lovingly made from scratch. After years of doing pop-ups around the city, Ma-Makan settled into a permanent space in Lausitzer Platz in 2022.