Compared to other Asian American restaurants in Seattle, Malaysian establishments are vastly underrepresented; in fact, the Seattle area has only three Malaysian restaurants, and two of them are on the Eastside. It wasn’t until Safira Ezani and her mother Masitah Hamzah started their pop-up Masakan in 2020 that they discovered pockets of Malay (Malaysian and close geographic neighbors Singapore and Indonesia) communities throughout the area.
According to Ezani, Malaysians tend to be spread out and have less of a centralized presence than other Southeast Asian American communities in Seattle. “My favorite response I hear from people who come to our pop-ups is that it reminds them of home,” she says. “It was hard for us finding a Malaysian community, and keeping up with our culture when [we’ve] moved to America, which is this big melting pot.”
Seattle’s pop-ups thrived during the pandemic with proliferating pizza kitchens and increased representation of Central and South American cuisines, but Masakan’s offerings filled an important gap. Ezani and Hamzah started a Malaysian catering side project a few years ago (and still offer private catering in addition to Masakan pop-ups). Both have full-time jobs, but cooking was a labor of love. Extending that to a wider community “sort of felt like a pipe dream to us,” Ezani said.
The turning point came last June when Ezani participated in a bake sale to raise funds for Black-led organizations in Seattle. “It ignited this sense of community that I felt was missing in my life,” Ezani said. “It led me down this path of reconnecting with my own culture, and ways I [could] share it with others.”
Masakan’s first pop-up was last October at Cafe Avole, back when the Ethiopian-owned cafe had its South End Brighton location (Cafe Avole is slated to reopen in the Liberty Bank Building later this month). The positive community response inspired Ezani and Hamzah to keep going. Since then Masakan has had pop-ups at Good Day Donuts in White Center, Beacon Hill’s The Station cafe, and Distant Worlds Coffeehouse. Masakan announces their pop-ups and preorder links on their Instagram account, and the menu typically sells out within a few hours.
“When I describe [Malaysian food] to someone who has never had it, I tell them it’s almost like Chinese and Indian food, but you know, if it got stuck on a tropical island,” Ezani said. “The cool thing about Malaysia is it has really large populations of Malays, Chinese and Indian communities ... There’s also Arabic food influences because Malaysia is a Muslim country.”
Masakan offerings typically include ingredients like coconut, shrimp or fish, plenty of chili, and are always halal. At last month’s pop-up, Masakan sold Kuih sampler boxes, a selection of Malaysian sweet or savory snacks. The boxes included Beef Curry Puffs, Kuih Lapis Rose — steamed rose-flavored layers of rice pudding — and Kuih Koci, black sticky rice buns with palm sugar and grated coconut, wrapped in banana leaves. “My mom says food is like memories to us, and I think that’s really true,” Ezani said.
Born in Malaysia, Ezani moved with her family to the U.S. when she was young, growing up in Florida, and later moving to the Seattle area. Despite seeing other Asian American enclaves, “I’ve only met one other Malaysian kid in all of my schooling until college,” she said. That’s changed through Masakan pop-ups. “It opened up my eyes to all these small pockets of Malaysian, Indonesian, or Singaporean communities … to share that pride of Malaysian food and give it to people who haven’t had it in years, that means a lot to us.”
The next Masakan pop-up is Saturday, October 2, at Distant Worlds Coffeehouse in the Roosevelt neighborhood from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. The first-come-first-serve offerings include Nasi Lemak — coconut milk rice with chili sambal, fried anchovies and peanuts wrapped in banana leaves — with beef Rendang, a spicy, braised beef dish with lemongrass; Pulut Panggang, sticky rice rolls filled with spiced shrimp and shredded coconut, and pandan cakes.
For those eager to get their fill of Malay food, Ezani recommends turning on Instagram notifications for Masakan, and noted that the October 2 pop-up will be first-come-first-serve with no preorders. Masakan’s next pop-up will be Saturday, October 9, at Malaysian-owned Jaiiya Cafe in Edmonds.