Culinary delights from across the archipelago
Ayam: Spice and Flavour
Passing by an open-kitchen bakery, I could smell the intriguing aroma of sweet, coffee-coated buns.
The urge to buy was irresistible. The incident was a typical everyday reminder of the power of smell: without seeing or tasting a food, our noses are quite capable of telling us that we should be craving it.
Since aromas are so integral to whetting the appetite, it’s no wonder that deliciously fragrant spices are so important to Indonesia’s traditional cuisines. The aromatic spices used differ from province to province and city to city, even when the main ingredients of a dish remain the same. Let me take you on a short culinary trip across the Indonesian archipelago by way of some of our favourite ayam (chicken) dishes, prepared using a variety of different aromatic key ingredients that will truly rock the palate!
Manado, North Sulawesi, is well known for its succulent, chilli-hot taste sensations. Ayam rica-rica is a favourite dish. In the Manadonese language, the word rica means ‘chilli or spicy taste’, so ayam rica-rica is a chilli-hot chicken dish. It will tease your taste buds with its combination of sweet and spicy; the hint of sweetness comes from Indonesian sweet soy sauce or granulated sugar, while long red chillies contribute the heat. Fragrant lemon basil leaves, known locally as kemangi, are added at the end of cooking for extra flavour. The relaxing effect of lemon basil is believed to balance the intensity of the spiciness. Perfect!
On the Island of the Gods, ayam betutu is the speciality that you must try (betutu means ‘roasted’). Normally served during religious and traditional ceremonies, the legendary ayam betutu is so popular that it is also a star turn in hotels and restaurants. However, cooking the favourite dish of Gilimanuk and Gianyar, Bali, is not so simple. Achieving the distinct smell and flavour of ayam betutu requires around 30 ingredients and multiple cooking steps, before the chef can place the banana-leaf-wrapped chicken over a slow charcoal fire.
Base genep (complete spice paste) and bumbu wewangenan (Balinese aromatic spices) are staple ingredients. Bumbu wewangenan consists of black pepper, white pepper, cloves, candlenuts, tabia bun (Balinese long peppers), coriander, nutmeg, jangu (calamus root), bangle (cassumunar ginger or plai in Thailand), kaffir lime skin and kemenyan (benzoin resin). In contrast to the kemenyan used for religious rituals and offerings, the benzoin resin for cooking has a rougher texture, and only quarter of a teaspoon is used. In Balinese traditional markets, wewangenan spices are normally sold unground. The spices add a heady pungent mix and savoury flavour. Aceh, on the northern end of Sumatra, offers another tongue-burning chicken dish, known locally as ayam tangkap. Tangkap means ‘to catch’, a reference to catching the chicken before putting it in the frying pan. Curry leaves (known locally as daun temuru or salam koja) and pandanus leaves are important ingredients for preparing this tasty dish. Some cooks can use as many as 40 curry leaves in order to prepare one whole chicken, which is presented under a covering of fried, crispy leaves.
For those with a sweet tooth, opor ayam, a speciality of Yogyakarta, Central Java, is a scrumptious alternative. Javanese people are known for their sweet recipes, which typically use palm sugar and coconut milk. Indonesian bay leaf (laurus nobilis, known locally as daun salam), lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves are added to create a wonderful bouquet and flavour. In Yogya, opor ayam is usually served with a side dish of gudeg, made from young green jackfruit simmered in coconut milk and palm sugar (it’s interesting to note that Yogyakarta’s speciality gudeg is now available canned).
Good food thankfully does not recognise borders. Herbs and spices that only grow in one part of the world can now easily be accessed anywhere. Wherever you are, give these dishes a try. You will love the aromas and flavours!
Javanese by birth, is a writer and translator whose passions are travelling, food and reading. Her hobby, amongst others, is observing the unique characteristics of different cuisines and places, which she shares later in her writing. Her published works include translated novels written by bestselling American authors, as well as travel and lifestyle articles.