Profile: Sulaiman Azmil, The Food Hunter

March 31, 2018

By Aiman Azri

Full-time lawyer, free-agent stand-up comedian, and lifelong food hunter: Sulaiman Azmil might be busy with a myriad of responsibilities, but he'll always find time for a knock-out meal, even if it means driving to Pahang for ikan patin or flying to Vietnam for crab noodles.

EDKL: So we're here to eat at one of your recommended places, Restoran Muar in Tengkat Tong Shin. Tell us a bit about yourself, Sulaiman - what's your origin story, so to speak?

SULAIMAN: Born and bred in PJ, but since we're talking about food, in terms of a culinary tradition, my mom and her parents were from Pahang and Johor. Asam tumis, laksa Johor and all that were things I grew up with.

Laksa Johor is quintessential Johor, but it's not Johor food that you make everyday. Whereas for asam pedas, I'd eat it three or four times a week. That kind of regularity!

On my dad's side, there's a lot of Penang influence. And there's also Negeri Sembilan food - my pengasuh came from Beranang, a town on the border of Selangor and Negeri Sembilan.

Masak lemak cili padi was something I grew up with. From a very young age, eating very, very spicy food was a common thing for me. There's a story about how as a kid, maybe three-and-a-half years old, my pengasuh cooked sambal tumis udang. I think I was old enough to associate the colour of this thing being hot, so I asked her "Pedas ke tak, ni?"

And she answered, "Kalo nak tahu, rasalah!" And so I also rasalah! And I'm told that I had tears coming down to my chin. I was literally screaming because it was so pedas. But after all that, apparently I said, "Tapi sedap ... nak lagi!"

So very, very early on, I had a taste for food that's really pedas. So when I was in university, most of my friends would see this. I had a reputation for having a tolerance for chillies that was way above the threshold of the average Malaysian.

This is great, because when I go to places like India, I get a lot of street cred. I'll be eating stuff that's way more pedas than my colleagues in India.

EDKL: Growing up, did you more frequently stay in or eat out? 

SULAIMAN: I grew up in a family where we all ate at home. Eating outside was a rare occurrence. You don't think of it as a luxury, but it's a special event. Whenever I was in Penang, we basically just eat at home, at my late grandmother's house.

Things like nasi padprik, these were things I got exposed to during varsity days. We meet up with varsity mates from all over Malaysia, and each of them come with their own culinary background. We'll go as one to eat nasi dagang and stuff. That was great.

Later in life, there was cuisine from Sabah and Sarawak. I might have grown up with Laksa Penang and Laksa Johor, but certainly Laksa Sarawak is up there on the list of my favourite dishes.

EDKL: As a big fan of local cuisine, why would you recommend Restoran Muar?

SULAIMAN: I can't think of many restaurants that reference Muar. Although, if I want Mee Bandung Muar, the place that I like to go to is one of those gerais opposite the police station in Seksyen 8, Newtown. There's one particular gerai that I go to for Mee Bandung Muar, with daging, kentang, udang. And they have masak pedas, which I've been meaning to have for breakfast, because apparently they serve asam pedas as early as 9am. That's on my bucket list.

So here, Restoran Muar, I heard about this place when I was working for YTL in Bukit Bintang. My colleagues asked me to follow them to this restaurant. It's within walking distance. The food immediately appealed to me, not least because of familiarity. Then there's the fact that the food is good. There's always a crowd here, and that's always a good sign.

I love the fact that the focus is on the food. It's no frills. You know how some restaurants try to beautify the plating of a Malay dish? There's some brownie points there, I guess. But for me, the taste will always be primary. You saw how they serve their Asam Pedas. It looks like how our moms would serve it at home. No frills, no prettifying of the dish, that's it! But the food is good.

I'm mindful of how this place looks, and that's also quite interesting. There's a heritage feel to this. The furniture and so on.

I know some friends sometimes ask me, "Hey, let's go to this place! It's got a nice ambiance." But I'm like, "The food OK or not?"

When I worked with YTL, back in 2007, that was 11 years ago. And already this place, Restoran Muar, was established. You know how in some places, you go back after a few years, and things taste different? What I like about this place is that I can come again and again and again, and there's a consistency with the food that's being served.

EDKL: Tell us about some of your favourite Malaysian restaurants.

SULAIMAN: The other places I like, they're more recent discoveries. There's this one place I found in Taman Melawati last year, Raso Omak Den, which is from Negeri, using loghat Negeri, which translates to The Way Mom Tastes! But what it means is, metaphorically, this is mom's cooking. This is food that I grew up with.

Along that road, they also have one shop selling mee tarik, or they call it kung fu ramen. Essentially Chinese mee tarik. So I have this plan that hasn't happened yet - have the kung fu ramen, have Raso Omak Den, then have the cendol nearby, all in Taman Melawati.

Another recent discovery is Itik Salai Masthar in Kampung Sungai Ramal Dalam, which is located, I guess, in the boundary of Bangi and Kajang. That's a place I've been to a few times in a very short space of time.

Ducks are not a common ingredient in Malay cooking. Not in West Malaysia, at least. It's so common in Indonesia. But it's not a common ingredient in Malay cooking, though it's far more common in Chinese cooking - roast duck and so on.

So when I found this place, I brought my Chinese friends, because I wanted them to try this Malay-style duck. They loved it! It was their first time having duck prepared as a Malay dish.

EDKL: How did they cook it? Masak lemak cili api?

SULAIMAN: It's all masak lemak cili api. But the duck is smoked first before it's added with the lauk. 

That place is an example of where they know their strength. They really know their strength, so let's not bother with anything else. Though they also do smoked beef and catfish, potentially to cater for people who may not eat duck. But it's all just one kuah. One way to eat it.

A shot of Itik Salai Masthar taken by Sulaiman.

EDKL: Tell us about food trips. What kind of trips and excursions do you go on?

SULAIMAN: Last year, I had this grand plan to go to at least one new place every weekend. Grand plans lah! Until you realise that sometimes you just want to watch Netflix.

Back then, I really made the effort, every week. On Friday, or sometimes even by Thursday, I'd have figured out where I was going to go on Saturday morning. But now, I find, that is difficult, because the idea is to go to a new place, and it requires discipline. A lot of discipline. You have to cari, and actually go to a new place.

And the thing is, sometimes you find a place that is so good, that you want to go to that place again, instead of going to a new place!

EDKL: Where's the farthest you've gone, purely for food?

SULAIMAN: In Malaysia, I've told myself that I'm just going to drive east. At some point, I'm going to stop and eat local food. So, Karak Highway, then farther east, and I found myself in Mentakab. I thought of going on to Temerloh, but I started the trip late, so I was short on time.

Mentakab, the one thing they're famous for is ikan patin. So this is me, alone. I went there, had patin on my own. And then after that, I went back and stopped at Genting Sempah. This is that little place that's just after the Karak Highway - and I had another round of patin.

I have done trips, like where I went to Ho Chi Minh, mostly because there were certain things I wanted to eat. In Ho Chi Minh, I wanted to go to this place that specialises in crab noodles. So I had these crab noodles that were amazing, to the point where I was thinking, nak pergi lagi, just for the weekend, because I regret that I've only had it once.

Food photos by Sulaiman.

EDKL: What other Malaysian restaurants would you recommend, that you'd like to give your recommendation or shout-out to?

SULAIMAN: There's a place called Sri Karak, which is in Newtown, Seksyen 8. It's in the main area where you have the banks and all, the business hub. Karak is obviously a reference to Karak in Pahang. They have Chinese dishes, but I went there to try one thing, and because of that one thing, every time I go back. This is their sang har mein - noodles with freshwater prawns; it's expensive, because it's freshwater prawns.

When people ask me about a place to get east coast food, Kelantan or Terengganu, there's this place in Pantai Dalam that's called Restoran Anis Puteri. Nasi dagang, laksam - I remember going there for breakfast with a friend, and it was her first time, and she just decided to stay on until lunch. I think the people there found it amusing. They even serve pulut kuning - not many places serve pulut kuning on a daily basis. Even kenduri nowadays people don't serve pulut kuning.

EDKL: What's the next food trip you have planned - Ho Chi Minh City?

SULAIMAN: I'd go to Ho Chi Minh, to eat, eat, eat, eat, eat. Don't bother going to the tunnels or whatever. Just overnight, makan and drink Vetnamese coffee. Ho Chi Minh, compared to Hanoi, is a much easier place to get halal Vietnamese dishes, especially in the area near Ben Thanh Market, the main market.

For a local trip, Melaka. Hopefully I can be there when an ex-colleague of mine goes back there (her parents are there) and get some local knowledge. I'll tell her, this is what I like, so bring me to the right places.

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