Azalina Eusope hovered over her simmering pot as an assistant ladled spicy soup on top of noodles, shredded chicken and bean sprouts. The laksa, a Malaysian specialty, was flavored with some 42 spices.
“This is the kind of food that reminds me of my culture, my family, my memories,” said the 32-year-old Eusope, a fifth-generation vendor of Malaysian street food. “This is what we do.”
Eusope’s hard work was on display Sunday for about 200 attendees of the second annual Street Food Conference at the Fort Mason Center, which followed Saturday’s Street Food Festival. While chefs served fried shrimp and mini bagels, vendors, policy experts and food cart enthusiasts discussed health codes, zoning laws and the intricacies of curry spices.
Organized by La Cocina, a Mission district nonprofit that helps low-income women open food businesses, the conference was intended to start a national conversation about street food, said La Cocina director Caleb Zigas.
Street food has become trendy in recent years, and San Francisco is a hotbed of innovation. But traditional street food vendors have fallen by the wayside as gourmet trucks have gained all the attention, Zigas said. He hoped the conversation started at the conference would help low-income street purveyors succeed in what can be a cutthroat industry.
“The women in our program have been making food and selling it on the street forever,” Zigas said, adding that for low-income immigrant women, this is often the only path to business ownership.
So far, La Cocina has helped 37 clients — mostly poor women who came to San Francisco from Latin America, Africa and Asia. Over six months, the entrepreneurs learn business skills, marketing, tax law and food safety regulations. Once they begin selling their food, they can continue to use La Cocina’s communal kitchen in the Mission.
“It’s kind of like university,” La Cocina spokeswoman Margarita Rojas said.
La Cocina helped launch Eusope’s catering business, which since 2009 has grown to include a line of sauces available at several Whole Foods in The City.
Eusope, whose grandmother sold coconut rice out of a basket she carried between villages, had always wanted to become a lawyer, but she found herself in the family business after all.
“You can’t turn away,” she said. “It’s in your family and in your soul. Somehow it’s going to come and find you.”