GaGa: spicing up Glasgow's food scene

The culinary market in Scotland's most populous city is growing. And Julie Lin, owner of local Malaysian cafe Julie's Kopitiam, is pitching in again with a new restaurant that's a celebration of her mixed heritage.
GaGa spice 16x9 hero

‘It's the size of a living room,’ says Julie Lin, the chef and owner of Julie's Kopitiam. ‘Literally. We're below a tenement flat. The restaurant is exactly the size of the living room upstairs. The kitchen is the size of the cupboard.’ It's from this small kitchen that noodle salads with lime and melon, fresh roti, coconut-rich curries and chilli-fried potatoes are dished up. Julie's Malaysian menu is served in the heart of Glasgow from a restaurant on the ground floor of an old town house.

Gone are the days when a trip to Scotland's most populous city would be rich in culture but sparse in cuisine. Glasgow is ‘becoming the place to get food’, says Julie. ‘[The city] got [its] first Michelin star last year with Lorna McNee at Cail Bruich. There are fancy places, but there are also amazing cafes, street food and old-style caffs. Glasgow is stubborn when it comes to gentrification; it changes but it stays the same.’ 

Julie's Kopitiam, her first restaurant, is surrounded by coffee shops and brunch spots; GaGa, Julie's newer and significantly larger venture, is in what she calls ‘an unofficial Chinatown’. ‘We're in Partick, by the shipping yards – a really culturally rich area – and there's been a huge influx of Asian students over the past few years. Now there are dumpling places, hot pot places and people come to Partick for the Asian food. It's amazing to see.’

GaGa is the fulfillment of a dream that Julie has had for some time, of exploring what it means to be bi-racial in food terms. Born to a Scottish dad and a Malaysian mum, Julie grew up on her mother's cooking of dhals and laksas. Julie learned to cook by watching her and, when she came to open her first restaurant, it was her mother's – and, by extension, her grandmother's food – that she brought to the cupboard-sized kitchen. Yet, at GaGa, she wants to occupy more of a middle ground between her Malaysian culinary inheritance and the city she calls home.

‘Sometimes, in the food world, people expect authenticity off you or not at all. It's a bit of a displacement. I wanted to find the hybrid in GaGa’ – a menu of Scottish-Malaysian fusion but by any other name. ‘[The word] “fusion” has a bad rep – and maybe rightly so,’ she continues, ‘but I've been talking to a couple of others who are mixed race and there's a need for mixed identity in food. It's not whitewashing something to present what you've grown up with.’ What Julie grew up with was traditional south-east Asian cuisine, interspersed and sometimes intermingled with Scottish fare: fry-ups, stews, chips, and an abundance of Italian food from the large Italian community in Glasgow. At GaGa, this translates as breakfast nasi goreng with pancetta and fried egg, a Taiwanese-style beef stew, and prawn toast with kewpie mayo.

Julie's style of cooking is ‘maternal’ in that it eschews timings and precise measurements in favor of senses and experience. ‘I learned by watching my mum, who learned from her mum. It wasn't methodical teaching.’ Recipes, in so far as they exist, are by no means regimented, which works for her food ‘because the curry pastes – which are the hardest and most important component – are so ambiguous, and the strength ingredients, like galangal and ginger, change subtly,’ she says. It works for her staff, too – though it takes longer than teaching by rote, in the long term, it results in ‘independent cooks who can experiment and bounce ideas off each other’. It also means that Julie can ‘employ people outside of the industry and train them’: people who might not have trained as chefs, but have grown up with the same instinctive cooking style that she did. ‘That encourages diversity as well.’

Like everyone in the food industry knows, managing kitchen stress levels is key. ‘We have the happiest wee kitchen. There are no hierarchies, no “Yes chef”, “No chef” and no shouting. We're more likely to be singing ABBA,’ she laughs. In the past year, Julie has been increasingly commended in the Scottish press, not just for her food, but for challenging preconceptions in her industry of kitchens being hostile, masculine environments. As a result, she has had ‘more female applicants, more non-binary applicants – more people feeling confident that there is a role in the kitchen for them’.

Long term, Julie's hope is for cooking and gender to be ‘disentangled entirely’. ‘The skills, the recipes, the work that generations of women have brought to the kitchen have been disregarded for centuries, and I'm happy to now celebrate that – but I would love to get to the point where it doesn't matter. We're going to have to fight a bit more to get there,’ she acknowledges – but she's excited to be ‘fighting and championing other chefs that are also fighting those old macho ways of working. Standing side by side as women and talking about it. Now is the time of rising.’

This article was first published in Courier issue 46, April/May 2022. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

You might like these, too