When Aziza Ali opened her eponymous restaurant along Emerald Hill Road in 1979, she was going where no-one had gone before. Aziza’s was a fine-dining Malay restaurant – an unheard-of concept at that time. And, even more surprising, it was a young Malay woman at the helm.
After her schooling at St. Theresa’s Convent, Aziza tried her hand at teaching, clerical work and broking. It then occurred to her to that there might be a living to be made in cooking, which she enjoyed. The second eldest of eight children, Aziza used to help her mother prepare lavish feasts for guests when they were living in Kampong Radin Mas.
“I had a great desire to open a more upmarket restaurant to introduce Malay food to non-Malays because good Malay food was found at home, not commercially at restaurants. My vision then was to introduce Malay food to the world,” she once said.
And that was exactly what she did. She bought a shop house at Emerald Hill Road and, with a staff of 15, Aziza’s was launched. Aziza was just 29 years old then. It was a success, attracting a wide range of customers including visiting celebrities such as Dionne Warwick and James Ingram. The restaurant became a favourite meeting place for the founders of the Singapore Heritage Society.
Apart from introducing good Malay food to the world, Aziza also showcased Malay culture, bringing in Malay dancers to perform traditional dances at the restaurant. In 1996, the restaurant won the Singapore Tourism Board's Best Dining Experience Award.
However, Aziza found herself having to battle the urban planners who wanted her to move out of Emerald Hill as the area was being rezoned. She resisted the move for some time but eventually had no choice but to relocate in 1995 to Albert Court. Three years later, Aziza’s fell victim to the effects of the Asian financial crisis and closed.
Aziza then became a food consultant, food columnist and a television personality. She travelled extensively and cooked her signature dishes for customers and friends in 13 countries. She had a food show on television for 24 years, and conducted many talks and workshops about food. In 2011 she was a member of the Culinary Institute of America’s judiciary council. Over the years she has been approached many times to re-open Aziza’s but she has no desire to do so.
Aziza’s interests these days include art. She makes jewellery and also paints. In six years she completed more than 208 paintings, some of which featured kitchen scenes. The self-taught artist, who wanted to be an artist or architect in her younger days, has held two exhibitions, in 2008 and 2010, and her paintings have been sold locally and overseas.
Aziza has written two books - Aziza’s Creative Malay Cuisine published in 2001 and a gastronomic memoir Sambal Days, Kampong Cuisine published in 2013. She also coordinated the food chapter in the book A Village Remembered, Kampong Radin Mas. A book due to be published in 2016 will be called Of Roots and Food, and will feature 70 dishes that reflect her Malay, Javanese, Chinese and Arab heritage. Her new mission is to make the younger generation more aware about Singapore’s past.