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Exploring Food and Travels

Elisa Ismail

Malaysia’s very own Food Hero winner, TV host and entrepreneur, Ili Sulaiman tells us of all her travelling adventures.

After winning a cook-off competition organised by the Asian Food Channel and Food Network, Ili Sulaiman was crowned Food Hero back in 2015, along with Debbie Wong from Hong Kong. She then went on to host her own cooking shows on television and started a web series showcasing her talent for cooking and inventing new recipes. As her passion for cooking grew, she ventured into starting her own food and food delivery ventures. Her latest creation is ILI POT Steamboat & Grill delivery, offering steamboat meals easily prepared in the comfort of your own home. Ili shares with us her own experiences of how food makes every travelling experience memorable and unforgettable.

You lived and studied in London for a while; how different was it compared to living in Malaysia, and how has it influenced your cooking in any way?

I lived in London for eight and a half years and I find it is very different in a lot of ways. The first thing that comes to my mind is food is very scarce compared to back home. Obviously in Malaysia we can get food 24 hours a day, no matter what time of day, but in London it’s really difficult and eateries in only certain areas open past 10pm. Another difference is the culture; Malaysians have a culture of sharing and being friendly whilst in London the people are a little reserved and private. Living in the UK and missing Malaysian food pushed my creativity on how I could use local English ingredients and blend them with Asian ingredients to make dishes like nasi lemak, rendang and curry. In a way it made me a better cook and made me think outside the box. Basically, there was no box to begin with! I had to use my imagination to mimic Malaysian food using whatever produce I could get in the UK.

Ili hitting the streets of London.
Does travelling influence or inspire your cooking or recipes in any way, and how so?

Yes, it does and I am so lucky. Fun fact: both my parents worked in Malaysia Airlines (MAS) as flight attendants and every year we would go on big family holidays. I would remember where I travelled based on the food we ate. I still remember the tastes and smells from places like Honolulu, Egypt, London and the United States. I think travelling has made me more open to new experiences and I don’t feel afraid to try new things whether I am eating in a different country or I am experimenting at home.

Big bites in Berlin (L), Sampling local fare in Spain (R).
What are the top 3 destinations on your Bucket List, and why?

The first is Japan, I’ve never been to Japan. My husband and I are waiting for the borders to open so we can go! I would also love to go to India because I’ve never been there but my husband has and says that I would love it, because I am really big into textiles, jewellery and home décor and I think India would be really an eye opening experience for me. The third destination is South America or even Mexico. I would love to venture to that side of the world.

Where are your favourite local destinations to travel to and what do you look for when you travel?

I have been falling in love with Malaysia all over again. Previously, I worked for a non profit organisation and travelled a lot up north, down south and even Borneo. Since CMCO was lifted we decided to travel within Malaysia, and so far we have been to a few places like Cherating, Tioman, Desaru and Johor Bahru, where my husband is from. We also drove up to Penang and Ipoh and it’s just wonderful to experience Malaysia as a Malaysian. When I am searching for a local destination, the things that I obviously look for are the food. I always look at the reviews and make sure that wherever I am staying, there is always a good recommendation of food, nice beaches, restaurants and cafes.

Ili and her husband takes on local destination at Cherating Beach, Pahang (L) and Desaru, Johor (R).
When going through KLIA or klia2, what services or facilities do you find most appealing?

I would say the number one facility I use a lot in KLIA is definitely the shops. I miss stocking up on my yearly perfume and makeup items because of the duty free prices. Usually when I travel, I stay with family and friends. It’s nice to get them a gift, and in KLIA you have an array of selection of chocolates or toys and even beverages to give to your host. I also have a tradition, where before travelling I stop by McDonald’s for some food even though I have already eaten! So I will never lose out on that tradition and will never forget it.

Other than KLIA or klia2, are there other airports in Malaysia that you like visiting?
Ready to take on a new adventure at the airport.

Langkawi International Airport is pretty awesome as you can see that the airport is rich with history and culture.

How do you keep yourself occupied on long layovers or when there’s a flight delay?

Being a ‘Malaysia Airlines baby’ as we call ourselves, we are always prepared, conditioned by our Malaysia Airlines parents. We always have a carry-on bag-on-wheels and we always bring a spare change of clean clothes, a book, Ipad downloaded with Netflix, adapters and chargers. Usually, we grab a meal and have something to eat. A must do for me is, freshening up at airports. It’s important because we can get really tired and really lethargic when travelling.

What is the one destination that you reckon everyone must visit at least once if given the opportunity?

I don’t just have one - I have a couple! The first one is Egypt. There is something really magical, seeing and standing in front of the pyramids in real life and visiting their museums, which are amazing. I also highly recommend people visit parts of Asia. I think Asia is so underrated. We really do need to see all of the islands in Sabah and in the Philippines. They are incredible, and we have some of the best beaches in the world. Don’t underestimate Asia!

Ili exploring the local market in Kuching, Sarawak (L) and sharing her love for food with her family in Bali (R).
Share with us ONE memorable episode during any of your holiday experiences ... something you still talk about to this day.
Soulmates abroad! Ili and her husband pictured in Germany.

I would say for some odd reason that has stuck in my head, even though I was 5 years old, is visiting Honolulu, Hawaii. It is so distinctive, that until today I long for the opportunity to go back again. I think the reason is because it was my first trip that I had both my mum and dad there the whole time. I remember very clearly going fishing and seeing the water with the clearest view of fishes around my feet; going to the Honolulu parade and seeing the flamethrowers and hula dancers; and having the best time ever. I also remember the music they were playing and the food I ate. That was the first time I had raw fish, like in a poke bowl. It was one of the first trips I had as a child, but until today, I fondly think of it as my favorite family holiday

Where is the first international destination you'll be heading to once it's safe to travel again, and why?

My husband and I were just talking about it, and we would really love to go to Japan. If Japan doesn’t happen then we would go to Korea again, as my business partner is based in Korea. I want to go back in winter, to do some snowboarding and experience Korea’s winter. Apparently, it is really cold!

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