IO – Aziza Ali, the doyenne of Malay cuisine and fine dining in Singapore was born 72 years ago in a small, idyllic Malay village in Singapore, called Radin Mas. It was a place of traditional Malay houses, fruit and flower gardens, vegetable fields and jungle. Sometimes, as a treat Aziza and her girl-friends would climb up nearby Mount Faber to watch the 6 am sunrise. Afterwards, heading down they gathered cashew nuts from the large tree along the way lit a small fire and roasted them: a delicious, little pleasure for the school girls. In tiny villages all over the Malay peninsula and the Indonesian Archipelago through the centuries watching the sunrise has been a major source of pleasure for children. Television and radio only began to be broadcast in Singapore in 1963.When that happened Radin Mas received a television for its community centre where the villagers came to watch from 6 pm till 11 pm. There were no broadcasts outside these hours.
Aziza herself lived in an old green house, pentagonal in shape with large shuttered windows open for the passing breezes, billowing and blowing its net curtains. It was perfectly adjusted to the climate. Malay houses were traditionally built on stilts but in her more modern Malay house, the open downstairs area had been built into a guest room and large hall. In the garden her mother grew orchids and ten varieties of fruit trees including rambutan or hairy fruit, bacem (a sort of wild mango), bananas, papayas and the small wild cherries so beloved of birds and small children. It also had a very useful kitchen garden with all the herbs needed for her mother’s kitchen.
Aziza’s maternal grandmother was Chinese and adopted as a baby by her great grandmother. Aziza does not know why her family adopted a Chinese baby but her grandmother was brought up in a Singaporean Malay home with Singaporean Malay traditions and thereby became a Singaporean Malay woman. Her daughter, Khatijah Ali was Aziza’s mother. Khatijah was half Chinese mixed with Javanese and Buginese blood. She had a propensity for business which the family attributed to her Chinese DNA which was no doubt helped by the property she also inherited from Aziza’s grandmother. From her mother’s side three generations of her family are on record as having lived in Radin Mas.
Meanwhile, Aziza’s father, Ali bin Yunos who was born in Batu Pahat, Johor Baru was of Javanese descent. Through this Javanese blood he had familial connections with Indonesia’s fourth president, Abdurrahman Wahid – more popularly known as Gus Dur. Her father was of Arab descent from the Assegaf family who had been living in Indonesia for six or seven generations. His most famous ancestor was Syech Ahmad Mutamakkin who was a Javanese aristocrat and a great religious scholar and preacher. His kramat or shrine is at the Kajen Mosque in Pati which is about two and a half hours from Semarang. Aziza says she has one remaining relative there and wants one day to go and visit her ancestor’s grave.
Ali bin Yunos father, Yunos bin Jumari (Aziza’s paternal grandfather) was sent to live in Mecca for 16 years because he was a rather naughty boy. When he returned he went to live in Batu Pahat in Malaysia and there Aziza’s father was born. Later, the whole family moved to Kampong Gelam in Singapore where the Sultan Mosque is located. When the Sultan of Johor ceded Singapore to the British, he was allowed a residence in Kampong Gelam and later built the Mosque there. Kampong Gelam was an area where Malays, Arabs, Javanese and Buginese stayed. Ali bin Yunos’ family lived on Bussaroh Street also known as Kampong Kaji. This was a place where many Indonesians especially Javanese, lived. They used to collect there before leaving for pilgrimage to Mecca as it took a month to obtain visas and during that time the children received lessons in reading the Qur’an. The Javanese were known for their good food.
While living in Kampong Gelam Ali bin Yusof met and married Khatijah. It was a match made marriage. As was the custom then, he moved to his wife’s house in Radin Mas. He was accompanied by a festive entourage carrying a symbolic bag. They later had eight children together and adopted another two nephews from relatives in Semarang so they could receive a good education, and there was always some old relative living in the house as well. There were altogether 14 people living in the house with the seven bedrooms upstairs, and Aziza’s mother cooked beautiful meals each day for them all. “My mother had the money and my father had the education,” confides Aziza.
Khatijah inherited the big family house and its compound where there was a pavilion with rooms that she rented out. She had another house that she rented out and it also had a pavilion with rooms that she also rented out. A Chinese famer who grew vegetables rented a large plot of land from her. Besides this, her mother inherited a small jamu or herbal business. She used the bark of seven different trees to make a herbal concoction for after birth, known as obat Priok. There was also massage oil and incense which was prepared by steaming cane sugar that produced a beautiful scent and of course, face masks made from crushed egg shells, turmeric and glutinous rice sautéed till brown and later mixed with water and lime juice. Her mother also made her own rice crackers and curry powders and sewed all the children’s clothes.
Ali bin Yusof was educated at the prestigious Raffles Institute and spoke five languages: Malay, English, Dutch, Javanese and Japanese. Later, he went to Japan on a Columbo Plan scholarship. Aziza says that he became a super skilled draughtsman and studied topography. “My father was eloquent, charming and a very balanced Muslim. He used to bring home friends regularly from the cricket club and the house was always full of people.
My mother was highly creative but rather submissive and always surprised us with new dishes. My father adored her cooking and was her biggest fan. She was Malay educated whereas my father was English educated and an ardent reader. Meanwhile, my mother liked to read the Malay papers. So, they were discussing and talking all the time. My memory is of them sitting comfortably together in their chairs each reading a newspaper commenting to each other and talking. Communication is truly the secret of a happy marriage. There was always something for them to talk about.”
Aziza’s ancestry connects her to Indonesia but so does the village of Radin Mas where she was born. Kampong Radin Mas was located in the area between the eastern slopes of Mount Faber and Mount Purmei and was once part of the estate of Sultan Abu Bakar of Johor. On the slopes of Mount Faber stood his brother, Ungku Mohamad Khalid’s istana or palace. It is said that his wife was a beautiful princess from Java known to the locals by her title Radin Mas. There is a legend about the Javanese princess and her kramat is located on the slopes of Mount Faber. Prof Johannes Widodo, Director of Graduate Programs in Architectural Conservation at the National University of Singapore has written about her in the book ‘Spaces of the Dead: A Case from the Living’ and says that she was a princess from the Mangkunegaran court in Central Java. Kramats are often thought to be protected by spirit tigers and the grave of Radin Mas was also known to be protected by a three-legged spirit tiger. A resident would regularly bring ritual food offerings for the spirit tiger and it was reported to come early every Friday morning to the shrine and sit there for a few minutes before limping away and disappearing into the jungle. It was said that afterwards, there was always a sweet scent around the shrine.
Despite the spirits of limping tigers and a few other ghosts, Radin Mas was rather a bucolic place to live with fields and gardens and many fruit trees. Later, Ungku Mohamad Khalid’s istana became a school for boys and as a little girl Aziza studied at both a convent school nearby as well as a madrasah or Muslim religious school. There were not only Malays but also some Chinese and a few Indians living there and most people knew each other. They would meet at the community centre or at places like the small grocery shop owned by a Chinese man just a few houses from Aziza’s house where in the small parking area food hawkers would gather in the afternoons to sell sate or small kebab on skewers, rujak or fruit salad, noodles, tempe and tofu, sliced fruit and juices, cakes etc. People would gather there and chat. All the vegetables were organic and for children it was a wonderland where they could explore the fields and jungle, fly kites, fish, play with tops, and many other games. Sometimes, film screens were set up in someone’s compound or field and the community would come to watch. At weddings the village would gather and afterwards there was dancing including 1960s dancing. “I miss how during festivals like Hari Raya (Idul Fitri) or Chinese New Year people would open their houses,” reminisced Aziza, “and we would go from house to house and celebrate together.”
What Aziza remembers most about her parent’s house was their generosity: a spirit of sharing and giving that her parents taught her – and this was often through food. Her parents would feed and entertain between 40 to 50 friends each month, with her mother cooking whatever was available in the house and always producing a delicious meal. Saturday lunches were special with all 14 family members making an effort to be there and sit around the table together talking and savoring the surprise new dish her mother always prepared on Saturdays. Once she prepared a leg of lamb with nuts in the Arabic style but it might be Malay, Javanese, Indian, Chinese or even once in a while a Western dish. Everyone looked forward to Saturday.
Another important time for sharing was during the fasting month. Every day, her mother cooked four different dishes for breaking the fast. Besides cooking for the 14 people at home, she also always cooked enough of the four dishes to also send to four neighbours. “It was so nice to break the fast together. We, kids had to deliver the food to the neighbours who were always delighted. It is one of my best memories ever – which I can never forget: that joy of family, community, sharing and food,” recalls Aziza.
It was this very organic life of nature, food, family, community, traditions and culture that produced and nurtured a woman like Aziza. Beside Aziza, Radin Mas also produced several cabinet ministers and parliamentarians for Singapore. However, when she was 22 years old this happy life changed completely.
In 1973 the government asked the inhabitants of Radin Mas to leave their homes. They were given the means to move to flats. For her two large houses with compounds and a field of nearly half an acre, Aziza’s mother was given compensation with which she could purchase two flats. “The government wanted to do away with kampongs and pave the way for progress. It was never really clear to me for what,” says Aziza sadly.
A whole way of life disappeared taking with it its customs, traditions and often means of earning money. Aziza says that five hundred people lived in Radin Mas and 65% of them owned land/houses. She believes they were poorly compensated. It took a long time for the villagers of Radin Mas to truly adjust and recover from the shock of having to leave their homes, community and very organic life style. Many experienced a culture shock away from their houses, gardens and the environment in which they had often lived for generations. Years of depression was not uncommon.
Perhaps, on some subconscious level Aziza has in fact tried to keep something of the Radin Mas way of life alive through the culinary traditions of her childhood, community and culture. She has done so by promoting and lifting Malay cuisine to an international level via her restaurants, cookbooks and many media appearances. The book, ‘A Village Remembered: Kampong Radin Mas 1800 – 1973’ was especially dedicated to keeping Radin Mas memories alive and must have meant a lot to former residents.
Recently, there have been debates in some circles about the cultural appropriation of Malay culinary traditions in Peranakan food without the proper acknowledgment of its origins. It must be said that nearly all cultures have been influenced by other cultures and traditions, and thereby enriched. When there is a cultural appropriation of other customs or practices (including culinary traditions) accompanied by disdain or while looking down upon that culture or refusing to acknowledge the origins of those customs or practices – it is akin to robbery. However, appropriating other cultural traits with appreciation, respect and admiration while celebrating their origins is not only perfectly acceptable but enriches us all and increases our understanding of one another. (Tamalia Alisjahbana)
If you enjoyed this article you may like to read more about Aziza Ali by the same writer in:
Part I: https://observerid.com/the-irrepressible-aziza-ali-a-malay-singaporean-success-story-part-i-singapores-doyenne-of-malay-cuisine-and-fine-dining-/