Living overseas in Malaysia is very different from home and quite an experience. Food sometimes can be an issue since I come from Indonesia where almost every dish is accompanied by cabe rawit (bird’s eye chilli) or sambal (a spicy homemade condiment made of chilli, spices, tomato, and vegetables) that always gives you a pleasing sensation of intense flavour. Indeed, I am a lover of hot and spicy foods.
This traditional Indonesian food hails from Surabaya, the Indonesia’s second-largest city as well as the capital of the province of East Java. However, this unique type of fried chicken has become a hit in Malaysia because of its alluring flavour. Mrs. Uun is an Indonesian who has been a right-hand woman of the owner of the restaurant Ayam Penyet Ria in Kuala Lumpur for approximately three months. While sitting comfortably in her chair, sipping a steaming glass of tea served by her staff, warming herself from the inside out – she expresses her view that what makes ayam penyet reach the height of its popularity in Malaysia is its distinctive name and taste. “There is no fried chicken which is flattened or smashed in Malaysia. Also, the taste is unique because it’s marinated in a blend of spices before it’s fried to certain crispiness,” she said.
A plate of food is like a picture, and the rim of the plate is the frame – sometimes you need to figure out in what kind of frame you want to mount your picture so that you can get a pleasing arrangement. This analogy seems to work for ayam penyet presentation like how the food is plated and garnished which also affects how people think it tastes. The flattened fried chicken and its garnish are usually served in the Indonesian wooden bowl or mortar called the cobek instead of normal plates. Buswani, the Malaysian owner of the restaurant Baso Indonesian Cuisine who has fallen in love with Indonesian cuisine since his first visit to the country, gave a reason for using the cobek to present his guests with ayam penyet. “Cobek is typical of serving style in Indonesia. Serving ayam penyet in the cobek itself can provide customers with an Indonesian cuisine dining experience since the mortar represents the country.”
Sometimes spicy foods can make people go very red in their face and burn their tongue, especially those who cannot take spiciness. It is not a surprise to owners of ayam penyet restaurants or outlets in Malaysia when some of their customers complain to them about the fiery hot sambal. When asked about his reaction to it, Buswani says, “I just follow the same recipe in Indonesia to retain the originality. I don’t want to change its spiciness, even though 15 per cent of my customers complain about the condiment because it’s super spicy.” It jogs my memory of the first time my Malaysian friends ate ayam penyet – a few of them appeared to be suffering from a burning tongue, the skin of their face turned red with sweat running through their faces. Rohini, my Malaysian friend who also falls in love with ayam penyet, reminisces – “With my first taste of the chicken, I could feel my taste buds tingling with its spiciness, the combination of ingredients incorporated into the seemingly simple chicken created bursts of flavour in my mouth.” To deal with this issue, both Buswani and Mrs. Uun usually will offer to separate the sambal from the fried chicken by serving it in a mini condiment bowl if their customers start complaining.
Addie, a Malaysian businessman, started his first outlet, Restoran Ayam Penyet-AP a year ago at Subang Jaya, Kuala Lumpur – and built a very experienced team in serving and cooking ayam penyet as their main speciality. Although he is considered young in this business, one of his outlets at Bandar Sunway Mentari is already pulling in many customers and also popular with youngsters. “As a businessman, I would like to venture into something that has a great potential regardless whether it is from another country. And I have found ayam penyet to be one of them,” he said. He also thinks that opening ayam penyet outlets is such a good business in Malaysia since only a few Indonesian restaurants can be found in the country. “And a good one will do well,” he added.
Cuisine can be another reason to savour the taste of a country and understand its own unique culture and way of life. Experiencing a tingling sensation of blazing hot crispy ayam penyet can also be an exciting journey into the world of Indonesian cuisine – this is indeed the taste of Indonesia.