Ili Sulaiman has a contagious laugh that punctuates the beginnings and ends of her sentences, and a bubbly, winning smile that radiates sunny vibes.
Both make such regular appearances that your strongest impressions of her will be “that laugh” and “that smile”.
Ili is wholly Ili – a charming, happy-go-lucky soul who just happens to be a very good cook.
Growing up, the kitchen was always close to Ili’s heart, and became a wondrous place of learning where her inventive mother taught her how to navigate her learning disability – dyslexia – through food.
“My mum encouraged me to use my hands and learn by doing things. So one of the many ways that she could think of was to put me in the kitchen to help out and learn ingredients, textures and flavours. So I think my technique of learning came from the kitchen and I just applied that to school and everything else,” she says.
Ili’s multi-racial family – her mum is half Chinese and half English and her dad is half Sri Lankan Tamil and half Malay – formed the basis for her diverse culinary influences, and she says this further helped influence her mastery of multiple cooking techniques.
“I think that also helped refine my palate as well, because I was able to appreciate and understand different cuisines and depths of flavours. That’s my advantage I think – that palate that I have,” she says.
Although she left to study business in London, she returned eight years later with a cooking repertoire and passion for food that had only grown over the years. Although she didn’t initially pursue cooking as a career, she had a moment of clarity when her friend, local musician Jeremy Little, was diagnosed with cancer and she began cooking for him as a way to get over her despair.
Little was convinced that Ili had what it took to go the distance in the culinary world, and his belief in her led to the formation of Dish by Ili, a food delivery business marked by its signature tiffin carriers.
Ili continued to go from strength to strength and in 2015, she tried out for and won the Asian Food Channel (AFC)’s Food Hero competition, which aimed to discover the channel’s next food host. That success led to two AFC show shorts – Family Feast With Ili and Home Cooked Malaysia as well as appearances on shows like Inspired With Anna Olson.
This November, Ili finally comes into her own, gaining her moment in the sun with her very own original six-episode AFC series, By The Sea With Ili.
“I think AFC has been trying to figure out what kind of personality I am. And I’ve been doing the web series but I was dying to do something bigger. I was like, ‘Guys, you have to put me with other people and see the magic happen!’
“So they were playing with a few ideas, and finally they said, ‘Okay, what do you think about going to seaside areas and cooking seafood?’ I was trying to keep it cool when they told me, but inside I was like ‘Oh my god, this is exciting!’” she says.
Ili says the show is perfect for her as she adores seafood and grew up eating lots and lots of fish. In fact, her go-to comfort food is piping hot rice, sambal, ulam and freshly fried fish!
The show was filmed in 30 days and sees Ili travelling through Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia uncovering some of the best seafood dishes in coastal towns like Hoi An, Phuket and Terengganu.
Each episode also shows her interacting with local personalities and engaging in activities like octopus hunting and sea urchin-catching, after which she goes on to create recipes inspired by her travels and encounters on the show.
“For somebody who’s always been in the studio but never outdoors, it’s a completely different experience because you’re working with the elements so you’re talking about the rain, the sea, people, sunshine. But it was amazing in the sense that every time I felt tired, I would turn around, look at the ocean and tell the crew, ‘Give me five minutes’. Then, I would dip my feet in the water and feel recharged,” she says.
Ili says she had some very unique experiences on the show, like meeting the Cham people (or sea gypsies) in Phuket who taught her how to find sea grapes; and helping a deep-sea diving fisherman in Vietnam hunt for sea urchins, armed with just a basket and a stick.
“There is something so cool about people like the sea gypsies – they are like Pirates Of The Caribbean kind of awesome. They have a way of living that is based on knowledge that’s passed through the generations. You don’t get to meet these sort of people if you were just going on holiday, right? So this show captures all these amazing individuals,” she says.
The recipes that Ili came up with on the show were inspired by the original dishes that she tried, but are stamped with her own identity. So you’ll find her making mouth-wateringly tantalising seafood dishes like baked prawns with salted egg yolk, pineapple and prawn curry, grilled squid with garlic chilli oil and lemongrass clam pasta – all influenced by the newfound flavours, ideas and tips she picked up on her trip.
“They are not the originals at all. It’s basically a spin or inspired by the original cuisine as I don’t know enough about the cuisine to be an expert. So I used whatever I learnt during my cooking experiences with the personalities to kind of create a dish,” she says.
Although she has loads on her plate now, including her brand new social initiative restaurant Agak Agak (co-founded with Root Cellar KL’s Basira Yeuseff), Ili says filming the show has shown her that being on television and sharing her love of food with others is her destiny.
“I think after I did the show, I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m meant to be on TV.’ I mean, I was tired and getting more sunburnt and rounder as the episodes went on (in Terengganu you can see I’m so bulat!), but now looking back, I’m glad I did it because I enjoyed every moment of it,” she says.
By The Sea With Ili airs on Thursdays at 10pm on AFC (Astro Channel 703).