PETALING JAYA: In Hertfordshire, UK, a food business called Dapur Mariae has made a name for itself, providing catering services and making home deliveries of its lip-smacking Malaysian cuisine to its growing clientele.
Founded in 2016 by Mariae Hackett, and her husband, Gerard, Dapur Mariae also hosts supper clubs and holds cooking classes. The couple also sell their own sauces and pastes to those who wish to whip up Malaysian favourites in their own kitchens.
In 2018, Dapur Mariae won the Quality Food Award UK for their sambal and peanut sauces, an award that recognises excellence in food and drink products, in terms of taste and quality of ingredients, among others.
Two years later, the duo bagged the same award for their meat curry paste as well as the Small Producer Award, which recognises small businesses with outstanding products.
This year, Dapur Mariae was one of only nine businesses hand-picked to be part of an incubator scheme by Co-op. Known as “The Apiary”, the food retailer provides support and mentorship for small and innovative businesses through this scheme.
In an online interview with FMT, Mariae opened up about winning these awards, admitting that it was the last thing on her mind.
“I never imagined it. Even though we had a solid customer base, deep down, I always felt that they only kept coming back to support us.”
“It’s only when we won our first award, that I realised that we really have something here. We felt really rewarded for all our hard work,” the 55-year-old said, adding that the feeling was “indescribable”.
When they initially began the business, both Mariae and her husband were still working full-time jobs – she as a nurse and Gerard as a chef.
“We had to test the waters first because we have two children and other commitments. As the business grew, I started reducing my hours at work, and I eventually left completely in 2020,” she explained. By then, Gerard had already left his full-time job, a decision he made after they had won their first award in 2018.
Mariae reveals that running the business took a lot of hard work and sacrifices, especially when it came to family time. “That is why I am very grateful to God that we can now have more time with the family, as well as with each other.”
So how did the Seremban-born Mariae end up settling down in the UK?
“I arrived to do nursing in 1989. Although I was a nurse for over 30 years, there was always a passion for cooking and my love for cooking started when I was about 10 or 11 in my mother’s kitchen,” said Mariae, who is of Punjabi-Eurasian descent.
In fact, the recipes of the award-winning sambal and peanut sauces are her mother’s.
“But I had to adapt it slightly because back home, it was all “agak-agak” (based on estimation), and I needed to ensure consistency in every jar. So, even though it’s my mother’s ingredients, it also has a little bit of me,” she added.
Three years after living in the UK, she met her husband Gerard, who is a French classically trained chef.
“But it was our friends who encouraged us to start a business because they said that our food was absolutely delicious, and it was a shame to keep it a secret.”
Reception for Malaysian food
According to Mariae, among the popular dishes on her menu are classic Malaysian favourites such as rendang and nasi lemak.
She said that contrary to popular belief, a lot of people in the UK actually like chilli. “In fact, quite a number of my customers would tell me not to adapt my recipe as they like our spice!” she revealed.
She said that in the UK in the early ‘90s, the number of Malaysian restaurants were very few and far between. “But, in the last five years, you can already find quite a few Malaysian restaurants in London,” she exclaimed, attributing this to the influence of social media.
“Daily, there are posts about Malaysian restaurants on Instagram. Meanwhile, on Facebook, I follow the ‘Malaysian Food in UK’ page. It gives up-to-date information about where one can buy Malaysian products and restaurant reviews and this group is not limited to just Malaysians. When I first came, such things were non-existent.”
Looking back, Mariae said she credits her Malaysian values for helping her overcome the many challenges she faced. “I think the main thing for me is being humble as well as having that strength and resilience. It’s also going with the ethos that hard work does pay.”
So, what’s next for Dapur Mariae?
“For the future, we hope for our products to be made available in Europe and I believe we’re going to be busy over the next few years.”