In Indonesia, Al Baik fried chicken is fast food, delivered slow. The famous chicken joint, a mainstay of cities in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, is wildly popular among Indonesian Muslims who sampled the chain's crispy chicken legs and garlicky sauce on an Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca. But those who return home with a craving for Al Baik are fresh out of luck. There isn't a single Al Baik restaurant in all of Indonesia.
So how did I get my hands on a box of "broasted" goodness? Tokopedia. The online marketplace is full of Al Baik resellers hawking unopened boxes of fried chicken transported back to Indonesia in the luggage and overhead compartments of flights catering to umrah package tour pilgrims. I know what you're thinking, "Wait, you're telling me that people are actually paying Rp 120,000 for a box of cold, four-day-old fried chicken?" They sure are. So, without much thought, I ordered my own box of Al Baik and waited.
Now, it's no surprise that I love fried chicken. I once ate nothing but fried chicken for every meal for an entire week just to see if I would ever get sick of it. I didn't. But a whole resale market based on fast food that survived a 10+ hour flight and is nearly a week old is still a bit much to stomach. Could it actually be any good?
I called up Farah Diba Afnan, the owner of an online shop selling food sourced from Saudi Arabia—including boxes of imported Al Baik. The shop, Kedai Mumtaz, was established a year ago to meet what she saw as a growing demand for the flavors of Saudi Arabia. Al Baik, she says, is a top seller. In a given month, Farah can sell between 50 and 100 boxes of Al Baik, catering to a market that associates nostalgic feelings with the savory flavors of fried chicken.
There are more than 70 branches of the chain in Saudi Arabia, including eight in Mecca and six in Medina—a fact that means that a lot of Indonesian Muslims likely ate a box or two of Al Baik while on what was probably the most important trip of their life.
“Al Baik is a cure for those who miss being in Saudi Arabia for umrah or Hajj, and for those who haven’t been there yet,” Farah told VICE. But what about the taste? Does it actually taste all that different from fried chicken sold in Indonesia?
“Al Baik has distinctive aroma and taste," Farah told me. "There is no other fried chicken in Indonesia that taste like Al Baik.”
But how does she get a regular supply of fried chicken that's sold 8,000 kilometers away? Farah told me that she has a network of family members, friends, and umrah or Hajj travel agents bringing the boxes of chicken back for her. The network is big enough to restock her supply every five days.
So how did this all start? Let's go back to the beginning and talk about the rise of Saudi Arabia's most-popular fried chicken spot. The first Al Baik opened its doors in Jeddah in 1974 when founder Shakour Abu Ghazalah saw the popularity of US fast food giants like McDonalds but wanted to add a Middle Eastern twist.
The chain quickly caught on in Saudi Arabia, where the chicken is so popular that it's sold out of the back of taxis parked on the side of the road in Riyadh—a city with 5 million people and not a single Al Baik. Those taxis are going on what locals call a "chicken run," to Jeddah—it's basically a short distance version of the Indonesian resell game (a 10 hour drive instead of a 10 hour flight).
But while the chain is from Saudi Arabia, the rest of Al Baik's story is pretty foreign. The founder, Shakour Abu Ghazalah, was Pakistani, the chickens themselves are from Brazil, and the iconic "broasting" method is from the United States. Not that it really matters. Sure the chicken's taste is part of its selling point in Indonesia, but even more so is its connections to holy cities in Saudi Arabia.
Mahar Mulyadi remembers eating Al Baik during an umrah trip to Mecca in 2014. He told me that he was amazed, not by the taste per-say, but by the massive portions and cheap price.
“What interested me the most was the jumbo portions,” Mahar told me. “When I ate it for the first time, the sauce tasted different. The garlic flavor was very strong and it smelled like Middle Eastern food. So, it tastes kind of different from American fried chicken restaurants.”
But the portions alone weren't enough to win Mahar over. That's why he was pretty surprised to hear that Indonesians were buying Al Baik in Indonesia.
"Are you sure you want to buy it straight from Saudi Arabia?" he said. "There will be nothing left but the logo by the time it arrives in Indonesia."
I've never been able to go on umrah or Hajj, so I decided the best way to try some Al Baik was to take a chance and order it myself. I found several stores with boxes of chicken in stock and ordered one for the cool price of Rp 120,000 ($8.74 USD)—a pretty high price tag for a box of week-old chicken. Sure, it costs about half as much in Saudi Arabia, but at the end of the day, it's still way cheaper than a plane ticket.
The box of Al Baik arrived at my office well after I went home, so my colleagues put it in the freezer overnight. The next day it didn't look very appetizing at all. The french fries were cold and pale, the bread looked stale, and the four big pieces of chicken looked well past their prime.
I took my box of imported chicken down to a street stall that sold deep fried snacks and asked him to refry the batch in a wok of used cooking oil. Sure, it's not the healthiest way to reheat fried chicken, but if I'm already eating a box of old chicken, then I'm obviously not too worried about my health.
As the chicken cooked up I could smell the Middle Eastern spices. I started to get excited at that point. To me, there are only two kinds of fried chicken—delicious and super delicious. And Al Baik fell firmly in the super delicious camp. It was so good that I had to wonder how earth-shatteringly delicious it must be when it's fresh.
I'll admit it, there's something magical about Al Baik. The chicken had been fried twice, smuggled from Saudi Arabia in the cabin of a plane, and frozen for days, but somehow it still tasted amazing. The breaded skin was perfectly crunchy and the meat was still juicy. But the garlic sauce was really what put it over the top. The fries were just OK, but what else would you expect after that much time? I didn't even bother to try the bread, because who wants stale bread anyway?
I started to understand all the hype. Was I sold on Al Baik? You better believe it. I don't know if I would buy it online again, but I am definitely asking my friends to bring some back the next time they visit Saudi Arabia. Oh, and while we're on the topic, I have a small favor to ask of Habib Rizieq Shihab, who is, by most accounts, hiding out somewhere in the Saudi kingdom to avoid pornography charges back in Indonesia. Habib Rizieq's people keep saying he's going to come home soon. Well, whenever you do, Habib Rizieq, can you bring back two boxes of Al Baik for me? Thanks.