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No One Cooks Chicken Like the Family Behind Lombok's Legendary Ayam Taliwang

Fifty years ago, one family elevated the humble "ayam kampung" to something truly amazing.
Ayam kampung. Photo via Flickr

The Indonesian island of Lombok is only a few hours boat ride from Bali—the country's main tourist draw. But that narrow strip of water running between the eastern tip of Bali and the western shores of Lombok is the dividing line between two worlds.

The Wallace Line runs straight down the Lombok Strait. On one side is the ecosystem of the rest of South and Southeast Asia—the land of elephants and tigers. On the other side of the Strait is Australasia—the home of marsupials and reptiles.


But in Indonesia, the ayam kampung, or "village chicken," knows no boundaries. There's something special about the ayam kampung. This tiny bird is the product of centuries of inter-breeding between local jungle fowl and various kinds of exotic chickens imported by Dutch and British traders. It's a living embodiment of our colonial history and a sign that even things that seem super Indonesian have a bit of somewhere else in them too.

It's the ayam kampung, or rather a legendary dish made out of the bird, that's brought me to the provincial capital of Lombok—a city called Mataram. The city is anything but a tourist draw. The tourists who hop over the Lombok Strait typically head north to the wild Gili islands or south to the surfing beaches that dot the coastline. Mataram is a kind of interchangeable place, a provincial city like so many others in Indonesia, aside from one thing—Ayam Taliwang.

Ayam Taliwang is three-month-old ayam kampung prepared to perfection with just enough chili to give it a fiery bite. It's seriously amazing, the kind of dish that puts a place on the culinary map, and in Mataram, it's literally everywhere. There are hundreds of Ayam Taliwang places in the city, but 50 or so years ago, there was only one—Ayam Taliwang Hj Salmah.

The restaurant is in the city's Taliwang section, a neighborhood named after the Taliwang tribe of Sumbawa whose people originally settled in this part of Mataram. This is where a woman named Hj Salmah Moerad invented Ayam Taliwang.


I had previously phoned to figure out where the restaurant was located. The woman on the phone told me that her husband, Taufan Rahmadi, was Hj Salmah's great, great grandson. He would be happy to talk to me, she said.

Today, Taufan runs the "Museum Kuliner Taliwang"—a locally famous spot down a narrow alley that marks the location the first plate of Ayam Taliwang was sold to a hungry diner.

Photo by Tsering

I've eaten Ayam Taliwang before. But this time I wanted to try the original recipe. But first I had to find it. The restaurant is in a middle-class residential area not far from Jalan Ade Irma Suryani in the city's center. There's a big sign reading "Museum Kuliner Taliwang" that directs diners down the narrow alley toward a wooden building with a large Sasak crown gate our front.

Inside, I met Taufan. He came out in a white outfit and a "sapu"—a traditional bandana worn by men in Lombok. Way back in 1963, Hj Salmah Moerad and her husband Ahmad Moerad opened the first Ayam Taliwang restaurant in the city, he told me. The dish quickly caught on. But few could make it with the same skill as Hj Salmah.

When she passed the business off to her offspring, they opened Ayam Taliwang joints all over the city. Today, there are five different branches all linked to the original restaurant. The names all sound the same, and the food is great no matter which one you choose.

"The taste has never changed," Taufan said. "I'm a living witness of this. From a young age, Inshallah, all the restaurants are about the same, depending on how you want it."


The secret to their success is the age of their chicken. Taufan told me his family's restaurants only use three-month-old ayam kampung and special kangkung imported from a specific farm in Lombok. The kangkung you can buy from other parts of Indonesia just isn't crunchy enough, he said. If I wanted to taste the original recipe, Taufan said, I should head over to Rumah Makan Taliwang Haji Moerand and talk to his wife Ririn Rahmadi.

The restaurant was only a short distance away. I poked my head into the kitchen and found Ririn standing near a huge wok and a charcoal grill. The whole place looked pretty normal. But it smelled delicious. You could almost taste the spices in the air.

Ririn let me in on another family secret. "I'm waiting for this coconut oil to heat up so I can cook the chicken," she said. "We made our own cooking oil from cooked coconut milk. Coconut oil lasts longer and is more fragrant than palm oil."

The baby chicken is first grilled halfway on the charcoal grill before it's tossed into the coconut oil and fried in the wok. The chef then pulled the chicken out, spooned some red chili paste over it and put it back on the grill. The ayam kampung is served with side of savory pelalah sauce made out of smoked dry chilis, plecing kangkung, beberuk terong (eggplant with tomato sambal), and white rice.

"One of the most important ingredients is the dry chillies," Ririn said of the sauce. "They're smoked not dried. It tastes better as pelalah sauce when you dip your chicken into it."


I'm not going to lie, I felt a bit bad about eating an ayam kampung that was so young. These chickens don't have the high fertility rates of regular chickens, so their eggs are few and far between. But whatever, I was hungry and it smelled so good.

Photo by Tsering Gurung

There's a serious amount of heat in each bite. The pelalah sauce neutralizes the heat a bit because the coconut oil flavor comes through strong. The beberuk terong and plecing kangkung were great. The savory spiciness mixed with the fresh acidity of the tomatoes and lime was difficult to resist, even though sometimes my stomach didn't agree.

But the Ayam Taliwang was the real star. It was perfectly spicy, moist, and oh so good. The whole lunch cost Rp 55,000 ($4 USD) so it's not exactly the most-affordable dish, but whatever. If we had Ayam Taliwang this good in Jakarta, I would never eat pizza or burgers again.

Ririn was watching as my friend and I snapped a million photos of the plate. She leaned in and whispered, "The key to Lombok food is its shrimp paste. If it tastes good, then the sambal will taste good."

Isn't she concerned about spilling all these secrets to a journalist? Nope. Ayam Taliwang is a dime-a-dozen in Lombok, and even great-grandma Hj Salmah told all her children to share the recipe, Ririn said.

Taufan said that sharing food with travelers was just the family's way.

"Our late great grandmother always told us to seek out friendship and help out-of-town travelers who didn't have much money," Taufan said. "It's not just a business. Someone's fortune is in the hands of God. Even if they cook Ayam Taliwang, that's fine. Nobody can copy-paste the recipe of Haji Moerad."