I always have this innate desire to cook for people. This journey started in 2014. I was taking time off from Teach For Malaysia (TFM) for two weeks. (Ili was working full time with TFM then). The first day I took the day off, a really close friend of mine discovered he was diagnosed with stage four lymphoma. The first thing that came to mind was to cook for him during this two weeks break. I started to research meals for cancer patients and he was giving me tasks like, “Oh, I want to eat a full English breakfast” “I want banana leaf rice”, I would make everything from scratch – the sausages, the baked beans, everything was organic. I’d cook the meal and send it to him. After the first week, he turned around to me and said,”I think you should just quit your job and do this. I’ve never seen you happier.”
Subsequently, I resigned from TFM and started Dish by Ili in 2014. I was 27. I also started dating my now-husband then. I told him I always wanted to cook for people at home. This was before delivery apps and Dah Makan. He recalled how last time, his neighbours used to hang tiffin carriers outside the gate. But to source for tiffins in large quantities is a challenge these days. No one produces tiffins anymore. My then-boyfriend was adamant and pushed me forward to develop this concept further.
By sheer luck during my final days at TFM, I was driving to Penang with three interns. We missed a turning and found ourselves in a palm oil (kelapa sawit) plantation inside a manufacturing area. I got the intern to go into a stainless steel factory to ask for directions. He came running out and said they produce tiffins! So we ran in and got the contacts. And that’s where I secured my supplier for tiffins. I bought my first batch of 50 tiffins with my last TFM paycheck.
For a takeaway business, think about how you make it sustainable; how to make the customers keep coming back. For a one-off payment for a period of time, we were serving home-cooked family meals for four people; lunch and dinner. Every tiffin is coded with an RM50 deposit collected. A rider will come to pick up the tiffins. He’ll drop it off at the homes, picking up the old tiffins and bringing them back.
While I was busy doing this, Asian Food Channel (called Asian food Network now) launched the Food Hero Competition. I entered but didn’t win, but my video was circulating on YouTube. A production house saw it, loved my video concept, got in touch with me, and that was how my first TV gig started in Astro Ria, with a show named ‘Diari Mangkuk Tingkat bersama Ili’. By this time, Dish by Ili was feeding about 30 families a day. We were doing really well.
My first experience with hosting a food show was not a pleasant experience. It wasn’t the camera – I was not camera shy. However, I was a newbie in this media industry. My contract was not properly constructed, working hours were insane, there was no compensation for certain things. At that moment, I understood that if I want to get into this, I need to get a talent manager to cover all grounds, and I’ll just focus on my craft.
Anybody who wants to go into this business, you need to have someone have your back. You need a supportive team. It was a tough first gig but the show was amazing. It’s still playing now and people are still like, “Oh, you’re the mangkuk tingkat girl.”
I would like to think that Dish by Ili and Diari Mangkuk Tingkat actually had some something to do with bringing tiffins back into our food culture, and the communal eating. Looking back now, I’m very happy about that.
But at that time, I thought that TV was not for me.
After the show, I just focused my energy back on Dish by Ili. A lot of my customers started becoming good friends. They would be asking for cooking tips and recipes. I realized that people do want to know what I have to offer. And then, Asian Food Channel was looking for a food host again with Food Hero 2015.
A really good friend of mine, Razif Hashim, another TV host who is also in the food business encouraged me to have a go at it and offered to shoot the submission video with me. Compared to the first Food Hero submission in 2014, I was more focused about what I wanted my submission video to be: showcase Malaysian food, preserving Malaysian legacy through food sharing and all that history. Alongside a videographer and Razif’s experience, we submitted the video.
Shortly after the submission, I got an email from Asian Food Channel (called Asian food Network now). I got through to the top five. It caught me by surprise as I did not expect it. It was in Singapore and I treated it as a fun foodie trip, getting along with everybody and just being my bubbly self. We had to cook a dish using the Miyazaki Beef, an amazing piece of meat. I called one of my foodie friend in Malaysia and asked him how I should cook this because it’s so delicate. He advised me to cook it with just salt and pepper. So, I presented the steak with garlic chips, mashed potato, and roasted cherry tomatoes. And I won the best dish of the night! And shortly after, they announced my name and Debbie Wong as the winners for Food Hero 2015! The win was definitely a pleasant surprise.
Things began to pick up after that. In 2016, I was in full swing with AFC for two years. Agak Agak, my first venture to the restaurant business was launched as well. I also did a rebranding to Dish by Ili, focusing more on content and subsequently, closed the food delivery business.
When people tell me about their favourite dish, I’ll cook it and write the recipe down. The years of cooking gave me a vault of recipes. I launched Dish by Ili with all these recipes as an avenue for people to personally engage with me. When creating recipes, I’m constantly looking at trends and what’s up and coming. And I’m thinking about how Malaysians are eating, keeping up with F&B news, what outlets are opening and closing. With every recipe, I really do the research and the relevancy. And also, when you work in an organization, you’re always learning something new. I miss that. Dish by Ili fills in that void. I’m always learning about SEO, trends, opportunities, website development, designs, editing. The stimulation helps to propel me forward.
In 2018, I started working with brands. I was Tefal’s Brand Ambassador in 2018. It was so much fun because I was always on the road meeting people. I need a balanced ratio of, say, 60 (on-screen):40 (on-ground) – that is when I do the cooking demos, host dinners, cooking classes – that’s what keeps me on my toes. And then I got a few more shows like “Belanga Kacukan” with Radio Televisyen Malaysia (RTM). I’ve worked with international brands like Nestle, Marks & Spencer and also local homegrown brands like Aya Real Food, KHH Double Lion, and lifestyle brands like Uniqlo, Noko and local designers like Mimpikita and Syomir Izwa Gupta
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I am sure some of you are worried about what you are going to cook for the family this Raya. Considering everything that's going on right now. I have broke it down for you guys my one pot chicken biryani. With lots of love and care, this recipe will definitely be a crowd pleasure for you and your family. Also, if the spices for the chicken marinate is a bit scary, just use any briyani rempah packet ok 😉 Make it and share the joy by tagging me or @uniqlomyofficial. #UniqloMY #LifeWear #SimpleMadeBetter #30DaysToRaya
The joy of cooking, talking to people, clearing plates. I love service, it’s in my blood.
When AFC was rebranded to Asian Food Network, I was signed back as their Malaysian ambassador. For the next couple of years, I will be working with AFN on recipes and digital content. We have some exciting interactive features planned, like creating your own digital cookbook, purchase plugins. So do stay tuned! This Ramadhan, I am hosting Facebook live cooking shows, namely Cook Along with Ili Sulaiman: Ramadan Special with Asian Food Network, teaching traditional recipes that you can easily make at home!
Ili is live from her kitchen with the perfect Roti Jala and Chicken Curry recipe for you to follow along and Buka Puasa with! Check out the ingredients you’ll need at https://bit.ly/35HKPTz to cook with her. Don’t forget to Like and Follow our page for other food-related content.
Posted by Asian Food Network on Selasa, 12 Mei 2020
Last year, I was diagnosed with PCOS. Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a condition that affects a woman’s hormone levels. It was quite terrifying. It hit me that I need to focus on myself.
I say, just have that honest conversation. PCOS affects one in every eight women so, it’s a huge deal. I knew something was up when my period stopped for a few months. I was also putting on weight I couldn’t lose. I had a personal trainer. I was eating salads three times a day. I was feeling really tired and lethargic. After a workout, I would fall asleep for three hours! No amount of caffeine would help. So, I visited my gynaecologist and took a blood test. My insulin was through the roof. There are two options with PCOS, either through medication or lifestyle change.
There are many different types of PCOS, one of them is insulin resistance, which I have. And a lot of my doctor friends advised me to change my lifestyle and subsequently, I began to:
- Remove gluten and dairy from my diet. I’ll bring sachets of powdered coconut milk out with me as my creamer.
- Design an exercise routine with my personal trainer. It enables me to understand my body better too. Strength and core training is able to reduce insulin resistance and improve my body composition.
- Every other day, I would either swim or do walks in the park with my husband.
When I started to make these lifestyle switches, I dropped about 10 kilos within a few months. I will definitely be talking more about PCOS on Dish by Ili. It serves as a platform accessible to building a community. All my recipes are now just based on that, and that’s the momentum that I’m going with now – raising awareness about women’s health.
The hustle is real. I’ve been working on my own since I left TFM in 2014. I’m a morning person so, I start my day really early, bursting with energy. It has been a remarkable journey and I would not have it any other way.
Now my focus in terms of work is really on Dish by Ili and Asian Food Network, and making both great. It’s very clear what I need to do with both of the platforms – to showcase Malaysian food, preserving Malaysian legacy through food sharing and all that history. It is about working with the right people that have the same values because you only have so much time. And also, knowing what your bigger picture is and you work towards that.
By Ili Sulaiman, Chef, Asian Food Network Malaysian Ambassador, TV Host. Image credit by Ili Sulaiman. Interview by Theri Burhan. Edited by Lim Aileen.