The irrepressible Aziza Ali, a Malay Singaporean success story. Part I: Singapore’s doyenne of Malay cuisine and fine dining.

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Aziza Ali. Photo courtesy of Axiza Ali

IO – For a young Malay woman from a small kampong, Singapore is a tough and competitive place to make a name for oneself. One Malay woman who managed to do so nevertheless, is Aziza Ali, now the doyenne of Malay cuisine and fine dining of Singapore. At the age of 25 Aziza managed to set up Singapore’s first Malay cuisine fine dining restaurant and it rapidly became the best known Malay restaurant in Singapore. Through the years high ranking government officials, international film stars, celebrities and just ordinary people with a palate for Malay cuisine, savored the food and atmosphere of her restaurant. She has written books, appeared on countless television and radio programs and received numerous accolades and awards. In her 70s now, this distinguished lady who is filled with an unstoppable zest for life, received the World Gourmet Life Time Achievement Award in 2021.

Aziza Ali receiving the World Gourmet Awards in 2021 with her delicious clam salad. Photo courtesy of Aziza Ali taken from ‘Aziza’s Creative Malay Cuisine’.

So, how did that young Malay woman from Kampong Radin Mas, Singapore manage to achieve her dreams? Like the parents of many young Malay girls at the time, Aziza’s parents wanted her to become a teacher. So, after college besides being a secretary, Aziza also became a relief teacher at a government school. As with nearly anything she has ever turned her hand at Aziza did very well as a teacher. When she first arrived, in classes of 40 students usually only two passed their final exams. In Aziza’s class however, 38 passed and the class 6 scouts that she taught floral arrangements to, won first prize. The headmaster was over the moon but despite excelling as a teacher she had other dreams; dreams already germinating in her since childhood.

So, Aziza gave up her teaching profession and worked at 3 jobs, as a secretary for an American company where she learnt about marketing, she sold real estate (where she made most of her money) and she became a small trader selling upholstery items that a friend created, both to shops and individually – all the while preparing in her mind how to achieve her true dream.

Aziza Malay chicken stew with green chillies. Photo courtesy of Aziza Ali from ‘Aziza’s Creative Malay Cuisine’.

The great love of Aziza’s life has always been people, food and cooking. With a warm, positive and nourishing personality that draws people to her like butterflies to sweet nectar, she knows instinctively how to make people feel comfortable and relaxed – and how to get them to simply enjoy themselves; added to which she is also a wonderful and creative cook who can magic-up the most delicious food in the blink of an eye. Her father was not happy with the idea of her opening a restaurant as he worried that Aziza would be so busy running it that she would have no time for marriage. However, Aziza’s mother who was an enthusiastic and experienced cook herself, quietly encouraged her daughter to pursue her dreams.

Aziza’s traditional sago pudding with mango and tropical almonds. Photo courtesy of Aziza Ali from ‘Aziza’s Creative Malay Cuisine’.

It was all a throw-back to her family life as a child when her parents often entertained friends so that cooking and entertaining were things Aziza was used to, growing up. Consequently, when she began looking for a building for her restaurant it was with the thought that a restaurant should be like a home that would serve and promote the best Malay food. At the time there were already fine dining restaurants in Singapore for European, Chinese and Indian food and Aziza was determined to create the first restaurant in Singapore where customers could experience exceptional Malay food in first class surroundings. In short: A Malay fine dining experience. That was the Aziza Ali dream.

Aziza Ali savoring a desert at her restaurant. Photo courtesy of Aziza Ali

So, in 1978 she started looking for the perfect house for her restaurant. She began by looking at the gracious old black and white houses in the Neo-Tudor style left by the British but it was the 1970s when business permits were not given for these bungalows which were kept solely as residences. In a sense, she was ahead of her time. In Malaysia, they were already permitting such houses to be used commercially but not yet in Singapore. Fed up, Aziza was shopping at Cold Storage when she spotted the heritage Peranakan Chinese shop houses in the next road on Emerald Hill, and began exploring. She loved the early 20th century shop houses with their colourful dado tiles. “They were historic, quaint and artistic. Perfect for the restaurant of my dreams,” remarked Aziza. “There was one shop house that was empty so I asked the neighbouring house who it belonged to: A Mr Tong. I went through the yellow pages calling all the Tongs listed and finally a pleasant woman’s voice confirmed that her company owned the shop house and I made an appointment to meet the owner on Monday at 8.30 am. I was so excited I was already waiting there at 7.30 am but Mr Tong only arrived at 9.30 am.

Aziza’s Restaurant on Emerald Hill. Photo courtesy of Aziza Ali.

At first, he thought I was a pest but he was not entirely opposed to selling because at the time Singapore was not yet into heritage preservation as it is now, and he was unsure whether the government intended to pull the buildings down on Emerald Hill, or not. So, after some hard bargaining we agreed to a middle price and I gave him Singapore $2 as a deposit.”

Aziza was able to put together money from her savings which was mostly from her earnings selling real estate and from money from her mother. With this she was able to obtain a mortgage from the bank for the remainder of the price. The sign she proudly put up on Emerald Hill read, “Aziza’s Restaurant. Authentic Malay cuisine”. It was the first and only Malay cuisine fine dining restaurant in Singapore.

Interior of Aziza’s Restaurant Photo courtesy of Aziza Ali.

She immediately hired an interior decorator and her brother designed the distinctive “A” which became her logo. Aziza then designed the cover of the menus, the staff uniforms, linen and lampshades all using the logo and she used every marketing skill she possessed to draw customers to her restaurant. A royal yellow or gold was the defining colour of her decor. All ladies frequenting her restaurant were given a creative basket with golden eggs and doily paper symbolizing prosperity with Aziza explaining to her guests how this was so their businesses would prosper. She held fashion shows at the restaurant and invited the most elegant matrons of Singapore high society to attend, her restaurant catered for bankers and top businesses and soon politicians and celebrities began visiting the restaurant. She set up torches at night outside the restaurant and had trios of Malay singers wandering the tables that were decked with flowers and candles. And of course, she served very, very good authentic Malay food.

Aziza Ali and her restaurant staff. Photo courtesy of Aziza Ali

In the beginning one great asset was that Aziza’s mother helped in the restaurant. A friend’s uncle let them buy their vegetables from him on credit. For the first three years, her mother supervised the preparations of several special dishes. These included sambal goreng penganten which like a normal sambal goreng consists of spicy tofu and vegetables however, to these were added assorted savouries such as cow’s liver, lungs, shrimp and tempe. There was an Arabic dish called bamiah which her mother used to prepare at home with curried lamb and okra. It had similarities with their biryani Johor which used either lamb or chicken. The main difference being that the biryani contained fried potatoes, boiled eggs and almonds with all the trimmings. Another of her mother’s popular dishes was Kelantan’s ayam percik where the chicken is first marinated for a day in coconut milk with ground candlenut and a mass of spices, before being roasted on a charcoal grill.

Aziza’s rending istimewa. Rendang or spicy beef stew is the most famous Malay dish internationally with UNESCO World Heritage recognition. Photo courtesy of Aziza Ali from ‘Aziza’s Creative Malay Cuisine’.

Aziza had her own two signature dishes. One was ayam panggang kasturi where chicken is first marinated in gula Malacca or palm sugar, the juice of key limes, the leaves of kaffir limes and chillies, before being roasted on a charcoal grill. The second is pecel istimewa. This is a sort of Malay mixed salad, but unlike the Indonesian pecel which is whitish in colour because it uses coconut milk in its dressing, Aziza’s pecel istimewa uses ground nuts and adds grilled chicken with a dressing of key lime and kaffir lime juice, coconut milk and ground candlenuts. On top of it all she places fried aubergine or brinjals as they are called in Malaysia.

These dishes were often ordered by guests on special days such as birthdays or Mother’s Day when they booked the restaurant’s private room and then of course, Aziza always added her special touches to make the event even more festive.   

Aziza’s savoury beef stew with beansprouts and fragrant leaves. Photo courtesy of Aziza Ali from ‘Aziza’s Creative Malay Cuisine’.

People longed for her food and Aziza soon found herself invited by the big corporations and hotels such as the Hyatt and the Shangri-La to create Aziza evenings or cook for 500 people for fund raising charity nights and other events. “I am always physically involved in the cooking, Aziza explains, “because the food is never the same if I am not.”

Aziza’s sambal goreng berudang or assorted meats with shrimp. Photo courtesy of Aziza Ali from ‘Aziza’s Creative Malay Cuisine’.

Aziza’s Restaurant survived for 20 years on Emerald Hill but although the restaurant was a success it faced constant difficulties with local government. A month after she opened her restaurant a letter arrived evicting her from the premises stating the restaurant was not located in a commercial zone but rather a residential one – despite having all the necessary permits. She was forced to turn to the courts to appeal the case which lasted for 18 years and three law suits. It was very unfortunate because the restaurant was located just on the boundary of the commercial and residential zones. For Aziza it was a frightening experience, seeing that this could happen despite all the awards her food received and the success of her restaurant. She questioned why her restaurant was given a license in the first place if it was in a non-commercial zone – all the while having to hide her anxieties and switch on a smile for her guests.

Aziza’s Restaurant at Albert Court. Photo courtesy of Aziza Ali.

When she finally lost her years long court battles Aziza was forced to move her restaurant to the Albert Court Hotel Annex. The owner had been a regular customer and knowing how desperate she was, rented her 6000 square feet for her restaurant. Aziza made the interior “very royal, classy with a Malay flair of wood, Malay paintings and golden flowers.” Fashion shows, dinners and dances, press conferences and many other events were held there – but it was never as successful as Aziza’s on Emerald Hill. First of all, the location was not as good. Then a new building structure was erected at the beginning of the road making access to Aziza’s difficult and not very peasant with the road blocked by piles of sand and tractors; the recession bringing it all to a standstill and also affecting the restaurant business itself. Heartbroken, Aziza finally had to let her staff go, many of whom had become like family to her and some of whom were single parents. She was forced to shut down Aziza’s Restaurant in 2003 following the Asian financial crisis.

Aziza’s sesame pancakes stuffed with lychees. Photo courtesy of Aziza Ali from ‘Aziza’s Creative Malay Cuisine’.

Depleted in mind and spirit, Aziza went to Mecca where she was able to find solace and a deep peace within herself. Upon her return she opened an office at Tudor Court where she has been running her food consultancy and from where she conceptualizes and organizes events especially those centered around food.

She has written and facilitated several books including ‘Sambal Days Kampong Cuisine’, ‘A Fine Malay Cuisine’, ‘Aziza’s Creative Malay Cuisine’, ‘A Village Remembered, Kampong Raden Mas 1800-1975’ and ‘My Heritage Kitchen: The Culinary Art of Aziza Ali’. She has also appeared continuously on television and radio food and heritage programs for over 30 years not only in Singapore but internationally in such countries as New Zealand and Canada.

Former Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and his wife at Aziza’s Heritage Kitchen. Photo courtesy of Aziza Ali.

Through the years the numerous guests at Aziza’s have included Malaysian royalty from Pahang, Perlis and Johor as well as from Brunei. Celebrities such as Dion Warwick, Mission Impossible’s Peter Grove, Gavin McLoed form The Love Boat as well as Malaysian singer Anita Sarawak and Indonesian Broery Marantika (they sat on the floor with her in a private room eating a very traditional Malay dish of bone marrow) have all been to Aziza’s. Malaysian cabinet ministers, Marina Mahathir as well as Lee Kuan Yew’s daughter have been guests and Aziza’s has prepared food for Singapore’s presidential Istana (during Mahathir’s term as prime minister), the Indonesian, United States and Norwegian embassies in Singapore as well as the likes of Bambang Suharto – and many more.

Former Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and his wife at Aziza’s Heritage Kitchen. Photo courtesy of Aziza Ali.

Aziza has received countless awards and recognition culminating last year in the World Gourmet Life Time Achievement Award for her personal performance and participation as well as her continuous efforts in the food and beverage industry.

As a former Straits Times food writer once said of Aziza, “…she took Malay food to an international level”. (Tamalia Alisjahbana)

In our following series about Aziza Ali we will explore the Malay village Radin Mas with its connections to Indonesia – where Aziza grew up and how she has captured that fleeting Malay world in Singapore through her evocative and humorous paintings.

Aziza’s assorted seafood soup. Photo courtesy of Aziza Ali.

If you enjoyed this article you may like to read more about Aziza Ali by the same writer in:
Part II: https://observerid.com/400th-anniversary-of-the-banda-massacre-part-iii-the-cakalele-becomes-a-dance-of-healing-2/