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Travelling with a Food Hero: Q&A with Ili Sulaiman

By Abby Yao

Travelling with a Food Hero: Q&A with Ili Sulaiman

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Photography: Asian Food Channel

Today, Sulaiman believes she is still learning the ropes in the kitchen, where she uses her gut and her senses in cooking, the ways her elders taught her. Flying out of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where she is based, she has been discovering cuisines around Southeast Asia. She shares her food and travel experiences with travel 3Sixty°.

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DID YOU EXPECT TO BUILD YOUR CAREER AROUND FOOD?

I never expected to make a living out of cooking because it was always something I did to relax or a way for me to express myself with the people I love and care about. I am very lucky to be living my dream and I am loving every single bit of my life and the work that I do!

HOW HAS YOUR LIFE CHANGED SINCE YOU WERE NAMED A FOOD HERO?

I have grown heaps in the last year! Food Hero Asia has given me the opportunity to travel, eat and cook some of the best food I have ever tasted in my life. You can see this in my new series ‘By The Sea With Ili’ premiering on Asian Food Channel on 10th November, Thursday at 10.00pm (SG), where I visit coastal cities across Southeast Asia and meet locals who inspire me to eat and cook up some amazing seafood dishes. On a personal level, winning Food Hero Asia has given me the confidence to expand my food delivery business called Dish By Ili and pushed me to open my first restaurant with a social cause called Agak Agak in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur, where we train youth in an apprenticeship program with the hope of changing their life trajectory and also to inject skilled workforce into the industry.

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WHO ARE THE FOOD PERSONALITIES INSPIRING YOU ONSCREEN AND OFF IT?

I always find inspiration from mums, grandmas, aunties and uncles who spend their days cooking from their hearts. They are my most favourite people to learn from because their knowledge on food is vast and insightful. But if I had to pick a food personality who has built an empire based not only on good food but is also an advocate for education and helping people, it would be Jamie Oliver. I have been watching him since his early days of cooking on TV and still draw inspiration from him today.

WHAT EXCITES YOU MOST WHEN YOU GET UP EVERY DAY?

I look forward to many things but most recently, I really get excited about having a good old nasi lemak breakfast with my team in my restaurant before service starts. It’s the act of coming together before the start of a busy day, with a bunch of people you admire, having a good meal and talking about life and food.

HOW IS DISH BY ILI DOING?

It’s doing great as we are still delivering wholesome Malaysian meals in tiffin carriers to many families in KL, approximate five times a day for lunch and dinner! We now also offer our lunchbox meals to offices for staff lunches and get-togethers but we are still true to encouraging people to take a break and have a meal together, so we have set a minimum order of 6 lunchboxes. We have also just introduced delicious modern Malaysian sandwiches like Sambal Tempeh, Duck Hoisin and Kambing with Mint Sandwiches. It’s expanding and growing organically, which is what we want.

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BY THE SEA WITH ILI FEATURES THE VARIED FLAVOURS OF THE SEA. DO YOU HAVE A FAVOURITE COASTAL CITY, ISLAND OR BEACH?

They were all so beautiful and so special. I travelled to Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia for ‘By The Sea with Ili’ and every city has its own charm and something special about its culture, people and seafood. In Danang, Vietnam, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that they eat a lot of chilli with their seafood; in Phuket, Thailand, there is a huge Peranakan influence in the way they cook their seafood and in Terengganu, Malaysia, I was reminded of the ways of my heritage and my culture. So I really can’t pick the best because it all taught me so much about life by the sea and its amazing seafood.

ANY MEMORABLE ON-LOCATION ANECDOTES?

Yes! I have so many. But here are some of the fun things I got up to:

In the premiere episode, I travelled to the Cham Islands in Vietnam and dived into the water to help a fisherman named Mr. Xi catch some sea urchins. We proceeded to eat them fresh and grilled on the BBQ. My goodness, it was so delicious!

For the third episode, I had the opportunity to meet a legendary man and leader of the sea gypsy community, Pak Ari. It was there in Phuket that I was able to learn how to fish using fish traps, and we even bartered our catch for some sea grapes and crab!

In Perhentian Islands, Malaysia, after dipping my toes into incredibly clear waters and eating way too much Keropok Lekor (fish sausages), I released baby turtles into the wild, which was one of the most heartwarming things I have ever done in my life.

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SOME PEOPLE HAVE THE IMPRESSION THAT SEAFOOD IS TOO EXPENSIVE OR EVEN TOO FISHY. HOW WOULD YOU WIN THEM OVER?

Being exposed to the vast variety of seafood in the series, I have realised that seafood is used in so many of our day-to-day dishes in Asia. Seafood comes in all shapes and forms—you can have it super fresh, you can have it dried, you can have it pounded and salted into cakes like belacan, or you can even have it in the form of a liquid like fish sauce. So I think people do not realise that they eat a lot more seafood than they think. Its flavour profile is the basis of many of our local food in Asia, be it in sambal, a stir fry, a broth, or even in our humble fried rice.

WHERE DO YOU DRAW THE LINE BETWEEN TRADITION AND INNOVATION?

For one to be able to innovate recipes, one needs to be able to truly understand traditional recipes. When you understand the root of a recipe and its origins, then you are better able to innovate it as how you see fit.

To give you an example, one of the dishes I have always helped and cooked since I was as young as 12 is my grandmother’s sambal tumis (stir-fried chilli paste). Now that I have a better understanding of the depth and profiles of a good sambal tumis, I am better able to explore different methods of preparing the dish while maintaining its authentic flavours. Innovation is always an exciting process for me and with this particular dish, I feel that I can do it well because I have my bases covered.

HOW DO YOU FIND RESTAURANTS AND PLACES TO EAT AT WHEN YOU TRAVEL?

I speak to people who have travelled to that destination and find out from them what to do and where to go. I also like to speak to the person next to me on the plane and ask them questions about their travels to that country. My dad says you can never go wrong with being nice to someone, even if it’s just someone on the street or your personal cabbie, especially when you travel, because they can often recommend the best places to eat and to visit.

I also enjoy getting lost and finding gems of eateries and restaurants that locals eat in. When walking, I use my nose a lot to sniff out amazing fragrances from food and restaurants.

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WHAT ARE YOUR TRAVEL MUST-HAVES?

Passport, sunglasses, sunscreen, bathing suit, sarong, notebook and pen, smartphone, a good pair of walking shoes/sandals, travel size spice box (if I know I will be travelling where there will be a kitchen) and a foldable bag in a bag (for food shopping)!

AFTER THE PROGRAMME, WHAT’S NEXT FOR YOU?

Who knows, but I would love to continuously grow as a cook and a chef by constantly learning from others. I hope to have many more life adventures that include sharing my love for food and travel, educating people about food, and turning passion into a career.

By The Sea with Ili premieres on 10th November 2016 at 10pm on the Asian Food Channel.

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About the Author

Abby Yao

Abby is a Filipina full-time writer, part-time traveller, occasional lindy hopper and painter on sabbatical who subsists on a diet of museums, podcasts and musicals.

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