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Satay Birmingham: A Taste of Authentic Malaysian Cuisine

Updated: Dec 14, 2023

Introducing Atiqah Tarmuji, widely known as Iqa, a culinary entrepreneur with a rich background steeped in the vibrant flavours of Malaysia. From her early ventures in selling kitchen tools to operating food trucks, Atiqah's entrepreneurial spirit has traversed the culinary landscape. Amidst the challenges of a global pandemic, Satay Birmingham emerges as a beacon of resilience and flavour, bringing the authentic taste of Malaysian satay to the heart of the UK. In this journey, Atiqah's fusion of traditional techniques learned from her grandmother and formal culinary education forms the backbone of her flavorful creations. Join us as we delve into the sizzling world of Satay Birmingham, a tale of passion, perseverance, and the savoury essence of char-grilled satay.

Please tell us a little bit about your background and how you came to start your business. 

I come from a food and beverage background. I'd been groomed to be an entrepreneur since high school. I started a business when I was 15. Business was a hobby back then; I started selling things to my friends and teachers. The same continued when I was in college. Before the Facebook marketplace and social media existed, everything was face-to-face or word of mouth. People buy from me because they know me; I have built a small community, which is also about trust. I learned many important skills at an early age. 

Since I was young, my grandma used to cook a lot for the army of Malaysia and in the village like a little Bazaar. She cooks a lot, and when I visit her in her village, she always cooks from morning until late evening. It's like non-stop cooking. It's nice because I got to taste and experience cooking firsthand from my family, and it gives me the spark for my passion for cooking. 

I lived in the city of Kuala Lumpur, and once in a while, I will visit my grandma in the village and, at the same time, learn from her - the authentic ways of cooking in a small village. Her cooking technique and how she cooks are things I cannot get from school; I speak from experience as a culinary graduate student. 

What inspires you to start a business?  

Before Satay Birmingham, I already had a few businesses back in Malaysia. I was selling kitchen tools. I was doing some kitchen shows, and many of my customers and friends were watching me cooking; they asked for cooking tips and saw the tools I was using. I saw an opportunity, and my business drive came out. I had thought that if I could not sell food, I could sell the tools, and surprisingly, I make millions out of it. Also, I have two food trucks selling char kuey teow (Malaysian stir fry flat noodles). I had business experience before I came to the UK, so it's easy for me to start here. 

The good thing is that during the pandemic, I took the opportunity to start the business from home, so I made a little kitchen separate from my house kitchen just outside the house's little garden. I converted the shed into a little kitchen for production for my business - I started making Satay, and everybody loves it. My husband has been very supportive about it, not only about the business but also because he loves Satay. That's how Satay Birmingham was born. 

Can you share your business journey? 

As a foreigner in a new country, I started my culinary journey without knowing many people, and the challenge of being an acquaintance rather than a close friend in unfamiliar territory is daunting - especially in an entrepreneurship journey. I'm not too fond of pushing my business mindset on people; people, being people, will judge whether you like it or not, and some will measure your success in terms of wealth. 

Having a small business is good, but. It's not that I want to keep it small; I have big dreams, of course. I have a big crazy idea and want to do everything massively. But, it's always come back to integrity and value. Small business is more than just the size or scale. It is about upholding the code of ethics with integrity and values. Most giant corporations don't share these values like us. While on this journey, I am reminded that business is inevitably about money; the heart of it lies in the values we offer to our people. 

What do you consider your biggest success as a small business owner?

I achieved my first million, which I never thought I would make. It takes a lot of work to make a million. I don't know if it was luck or a plan, but sometimes things go differently. But with perseverance and a good opportunity, I achieved it, so that is my biggest business success. 

Many companies need to take out loans to scale, but I didn't have to. I didn't have to take out a loan from anyone, even family. 

Instead of spending on material and luxury stuff, I reinvest them into the business. For instance, I bought the food trucks with the money that the business generated. I feel good about it; I fully control my business without a loan or investor pressure.  

Wow, that's amazing. Do you have any hiccups or failures in your journey?

Of course, a lot. To succeed, it comes as a pair. Life is all about two sides, male and female, Yin and Yang, like, is, always come as a pair. It goes the same way with success. If you want to be successful, you will encounter failures too. 

Most people only fail once, but I failed more than 3 times. I lose money. At some point in the business, you will lose money because when you sell, nobody buys. Even after all your planning and hard work, you tried everything in your control. But things will not always go your way, like when I was selling outdoors when it suddenly was raining, nobody was buying. 

The thing is, From the failure, you will learn what to do. When it comes to rain again, you must get an umbrella ready. So, I had a canopy from that moment onwards. Simple, but it works. 

There is a saying in Malay, “Sediakan payung sebelum hujan”. It means "Get the umbrella ready before it rains."

How do you balance between Satay Birmingham and your personal life?

It is the best thing when it comes to controlling your own business. From a perspective, my business is about a niche market; it's only for some. I only set realistic goals and expectations from the beginning. I don't aim too high; if you don't achieve it, you won't feel the pain, so start with low or medium. 

Second, most important, take some time off. I'm a very traditional person and a true Malaysian. We have a culture of massage and relaxation, like a spa. A lot of women in Malaysia enjoy it. Back then, it was common practice to have a masseur come to our house or community to provide messages and spa treatment. Make sure you give yourself that comfort at least once a month. So it's compulsory to have that.

The downside is working mostly alone. Satay Birmingham is run by one person; I can hire a worker to help, but at the end of the day, there will always be that one job nobody wants to do, but I will have to do it, like washing dishes. Imagine a giant pile of dishes at the end of the festival. If you don't do it. It will still be there. So, I got to be mentally prepared for anything that would hit me. Who is going to pay me to do that? So I pay myself to spa every month haha. 

Do you have any advice for people who want to start their own business and be successful like you?

My advice would be to start small and stay within your limit. Set a goal of what you really want to do. Ask yourself, why do you want to do business? 

It could be about money; doing business could help you get more money. Money is one of the ways to measure the success of a business or a person. But It needs to come with integrity, value and humanity with the soul. When you don't put the soul into the business, the business will become unethical. 

So that's why I always advise people, especially those who are very new in the industry and have yet to gain experience. Start by doing the hard job in the old-school style, like washing dishes first. If they can survive that washing dishes part, we proceed to how you can make money. That's one more piece of advice that I like to leave to the readers. 

I would love people to know when you fall, which you likely will. You will bruise, cry and fall on the ground. You can stay there. It is okay to stay there but don't stay too long. Whether you like it or not, you will have to get up. Kick yourself up if you must. 

What do we think?

Growing up in Malaysia, this story brings me nostalgia and memories. I remember the smell of charcoal and the grill flavour in the air, even a few blocks away. The scent is like attracting bees to honey, and it is impossible to ignore; it is one of the unique characteristics of Satay, including a peanut sauce. Even most restaurants and ready-made Satay cannot compare to a true Malaysian Masterchef's authentic style of flavours and cooking. It is much more than a typical meat of a stick.

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