SINGAPORE - She was feted as a doyenne of Malay fine dining - before she reinvented herself as an artist, businesswoman, author, events planner and motivational speaker.
Like the master chef that she is, Aziza Ali, 69, will often blend her disparate roles to concoct a fresh enterprise. Now, she is transferring her vibrant art onto long, soft shawls and scarves for retail.
About two months ago, Aziza, who paints sumptuous scenes of kampung kitchens and loves wearing shawls, asked herself: "Why don't I transfer my art onto fabric?"
She has since prepared nearly 100 patterns and spoken to suppliers, though production has yet to start.
Designs range from abstract motifs to folksy portrayals of women balancing pots on their heads. One alluring portrait appears to be of a voluptuous villager until a closer look reveals a young woman holding a mobile phone - the modern miss cannot cook and plans to order takeaway.
Aziza will introduce the line slowly this year to test the market.She is also active in other realms this year, including Asian Masters, a year-long culinary festival. In March, she presented a fine-dining menu at the Grand Hyatt Singapore. The experience was embellished with jazz and ronggeng (a Malay traditional dance) and 15 of her paintings.
"Aziza is not just about food. It's lifestyle,'' as she puts it.
Next month, she will be among a quartet of chefs who will cook at the Bayfront Pavilion, Gardens by the Bay. She will craft "local desserts with a little twist" for the Community Chest event.
She likes a touch of flamboyance in her cooking. For the sour-spicy fish stew, asam pedas, she has cooked with cod and scallop instead of local fish. Sliced eggplants are arranged like blossoms in the dish.
But daun kesum or laksa leaves are still a must in asam pedas. "I don't change the colour or sauce. But I add a bit of style,'' she says. "I'm very traditional on one side, but I also like to explore and take a risk."
That stylishness and verve have been her signature since she opened the Aziza's fine-dining Malay establishment in an Emerald Hill shophouse in 1979. Sheikhs and Singaporeans dined at her table for two decades. The restaurant closed in 2000.
Even without Aziza's, which defined her career, her life is full with work and pleasure.
She is 13 pages into her fifth book, a memoir. Her desire is to share stories of her food, life and business with younger people.
"They need to hear stories, what falling is like and what picking yourself up is like. That shapes your character and thinking."
Among her books are My Heritage Kitchen: The Culinary Art Of Aziza Ali, published in 2017. It highlights dishes from her Malay, Javanese, Chinese and Arab heritage.
As a storyteller who has an eye on legacy, she tailor-makes talks for audiences such as polytechnic students, Rotarians and retirees.
For young people, she might counsel doing due diligence before starting a business. She also mentors younger chefs.
At her age, the high-energy veteran treats work a little differently. Instead of "selling her soul", which happened with her all-consuming restaurant, she is fulfilling her passion for art.
As a teen, she dreamed of becoming an artist or architect. But she is glad she started as a chef and businesswoman, which exposed her to the international life.
She has done solo and group shows for her art and is certainly aglow about her artsy shawls.
"Now I am busy but not hectic,'' she says.
"I try not to say 'yes' all the time. I have time for family and friends whom I've known for 40, 50 years. I have time for myself."
She walks and does qigong, and maintains her looks. Deft with make-up and accessories, which she crafts, she also keeps her hair short and chic. "I am vain,'' she quips.
More importantly, she can say with conviction: "I am in a good place. My philosophy is simple. In life, you have to be productive."
And that is why she will always pursue new dreams.
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.
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