Panca Nugraha, The Jakarta Post, Lombok
A tour of Lombok, West Nusa Tenggara, will not be complete without tasting the local Taliwang Chicken -- Ayam Taliwang -- to explore the mystery of its flavor.
This typical Lombok dish is a favorite among both locals and visitors to the island. In Mataram, the provincial capital, it can be found at various eateries from sidewalk food stalls to restaurants in star-rated hotels.
At first glance, Taliwang Chicken looks almost like the common grilled or fried chicken, simply covered with a spicy relish. Only after tasting it can we discern the difference.
The meat is well done and very soft in texture. Both hot and sweet, it has the aroma of terasi (fermented shrimp paste), which prompts us to savor every mouthful.
""It tastes hot and deeply piquant,"" said I Made Putra, a resident of Denpasar, Bali, who was enjoying Taliwang Chicken for lunch at Lesehan Taliwang Irama, a Mataram restaurant where guests eat lesehan-style, sitting on floor mats. ""It's my first visit here. A friend told me (about it) and he's right -- the chicken has a unique flavor.""
The name of the dish is derived from Karang Taliwang, a subdistrict in Mataram where the recipe for this regional specialty has its roots. The late H. Abdul Hamid is recognized for creating the Ayam Taliwang recipe in 1970.
Lesehan Taliwang Irama -- situated on Jl. Ade Irma Suryani in Karang Taliwang, Cakranegara, Mataram -- was set up in 1997 by Hamid's son, H. Mahmudin, who has since managed the business.
""The ingredients for this chicken are only chili, garlic and terasi, but the method of preparation and the proportions of these condiments are different. My father concocted the spice sauce in the 1970s and first opened a chicken stall near the Cakranegara shopping center back then,"" Mahmudin told The Jakarta Post.
He recalled the hard times he experienced when helping his father start the eatery business, particularly because potential customers were as yet unaware of the difference between Ayam Taliwang and grilled or fried chicken.
According to Mahmudin, Taliwang Chicken became known for the first time as a typical food of the area in the 1980s, when a state minister toured Mataram.
""My father got an order for 100 portions from the state minister. Since then, visiting government officials have always sought Taliwang Chicken for their dinners,"" he said.
As the unique dish had its beginnings in Karang Taliwang, Mahmudin was struck by the idea of using this name, and established his lesehan restaurant in 1997.
Today, Lesehan Taliwang Irama employs at least 35 people from the area. The emergence of bird flu across Indonesia had reduced his turnover for a while, but the chicken business is now reviving with no incidence of the epidemic in West Nusa Tenggara so far.
As to the mystery of Taliwang Chicken's delectable flavor, Mahmudin said this concerned the choice of meat as well as the cooking process.
Mahmudin only uses three-month-old free-range chickens, because the meat becomes tough if the chicken is older and ""breaks"" if it is younger.
After the fowl is cleaned and grilled until it is half done, the meat is tenderized with a pestle and dipped into hot cooking oil for several seconds. It is immersed into the spicy sauce before it is grilled or fried until well done.
But don't expect an answer to a request for the special sauce's recipe.
""It's a trade secret,"" remarked Mahmudin. He gave the same response when a number of students from Surabaya, East Java, visited his lesehan and asked for the recipe.
""A journalist from Japan once also wanted the recipe for his article. I just gave him a general instruction,"" he added. In face, Mahmudin prepares the sauce and condiments for the dish himself while his cooks finish the chicken, thus maintaining the authentic flavor of the original.
The restaurant's long existence, in addition to various suggestions from customers, have resulted in Taliwang Irama's expanded menu, which includes sea- and freshwater fish prepared with the same sauce.
In spite of his established restaurant business, Mahmudin has not considered opening branches outside Lombok.
""It's simple: Ayam Taliwang carries the unique flavor of Lombok, so let people from other regions come here to try Lombok's specialty. They will also get an impression of the place,"" he said.
The fame of this mouth-watering chicken in the country has even resulted in the production of Taliwang-flavored instant noodles. This worries Mahmudin, who was not contacted by the noodle-maker for permission to capitalize on his family recipe.
""It's about time for me to form a Taliwang Chicken sellers' association. This is a formula unique to Taliwang, (so) how can a (mass) product claim to have the same flavor?"" he said.
With his plan to trademark his recipe, Mahmudin hoped that the West Nusa Tenggara provincial administration would assist in the nationwide promotion of the Lombok dish.
""A lot of food stalls and hotel restaurants serve Taliwang dishes, but these are known only by word of mouth, rather than through government promotion of regional highlights,"" he pointed out.
Taliwang Chicken is even more appetizing when accompanied with local side dishes such as plecing (water spinach with tomato-chili relish) and beberuk (eggplant in chili sauce). Priced at Rp 15,000-25,000 for a full portion, Ayam Taliwang can be found in nearly all eateries in Mataram.