Bold as Love

Thanks to Astrid Enricka Dhita, the daring, in-your-face Ayam Tangkap from Aceh is becoming more playful

Astrid Enricka Dhita, also known as Acil, quitted her job as journalist to pursue her dream to become an entrepreneur. Among many of Indonesian vast cuisine and her heritage, she chose a region that’s not related to her, solely because of love. When she opened Ayam Tangkap AR in Ciranjang, Jakarta (2012) and met the Aceh people, there are 2 kind of reaction: happy because they find a person who appreciate their cultural heritage, or skeptical and think, “you don’t come from Aceh, what the hell did you do with my cuisine!?” The last one sounds very much like some Italians, right? Here’s our interview with the woman who’s also a member of ACMI (Aku Cinta Masakan Indonesia).

Did you come from Aceh?

No, my mother is an Arab and Surabaya, and my father has Banjarmasin, Lombok, Makassar, and Sundanese blood. I was born and raised in Riau, this region played major role in shaping my palate. I’m used to eat in Padang restaurant named Pak Datuk, I consider it as super delicious Padang restaurant: lado ijo, lado merah, Dendeng Batokok, Gulai Ayam, Lele Bakar. I can relate to Minang and Malayan cuisine, the difference is, Malayan is a bit more thin in spice compared to Minang, aside from that, they have a lot in common such as the use of coconut cream, the spice, they also share the same color in the dishes: yellow, red, green.

How did you come up with the idea of this business?

When I graduated from Padjajaran University, majoring in French Literature, I moved to Jakarta and worked in Cosmo Girl, Global TV, and then to Kompas TV in 2010-2012 as producer. It was a very exhausting job, because as new TV, Kompas still have very few people while wanting to create many programs. If a producer usually handles one program, I handled 3,5 at once. I could wake up at night, just thinking about the preparation of the camera equipment. I decided to start a business, the option were: fashion or F&B.

Finally I settled on Aceh cuisine. I’m not an Aceh, I wouldn’t even dare to claim to be one. To learn about Aceh cuisine, I learn to a woman who runs a catering business in Aceh, her name’s Ibu Supinah.

Actually, I was pretty nervous when I met her, the first thing I want to talk about is the fee of this “cooking course”, considering she’s a professional cook. She only said, “I’m not here to teach you, I just want to share. I’m glad we have a youngster who’s not even an Aceh person, want to start her own Aceh restaurant in Jakarta, and willing to go far here just to learn.” At the time, I couldn’t contain the tear in my eyes. I was there for about a week to learn various types of Aceh cuisines, even though I know from the beginning I was about to open Ayam Tangkap restaurant.

Wait, so you quit your job as producer, go to Aceh just to learn to cook, I assume you’re jobless back then?

Yeah, it was pretty crazy. If you ask me to do that again now, I’d be afraid lol.

What was the reaction of true Aceh people when they know a people from outside Aceh open this Ayam Tangkap restaurant?

I have a friend from Aceh, her father is a Vice Chairman of Peoples Consultative Assembly (MPR) of past periods. When I was invited for a dinner in her house, her father was happy, but her mother gave me the cold shoulder. She asked, “you probably can cook Ayam Tangkap, but do you understand the story behind it?” After that she left me for shalat.

When she got back downstair, I open a discussion. I want to show that I respect Aceh culture, your province is amazing. After that, we talk to each other and she started to show some respect when I said I was invited to an event held by Iskandar Muda Community (a community for Aceh people) in Pondok Indah Golf, thanks to Mr Wil’s (William Wongso) invitation. At the time, the goodie bag was a recipe book for Aceh cuisine, I was ecstatic, and the woman coincidentally is one of the editor for the book.

How do you describe Aceh cuisine’s taste profile?

More to aromatic and acid, the spiciness is not always there. Minang cuisine has more spiciness and creaminess from coconut milk. Aceh is very prominent in aromatic spices, imagine, they eat curry leaves and pandan. Aceh curry’s is very saturated, with strong aroma. Aceh people love to use spices such as cajun, cardamom, fennel, anise star, cinnamon, meanwhile, Minang does not. As a result, even though they are geographically close to each other, Aceh and Minang’s taste profile are totally different.

From numerous Aceh dishes, why did you settle on Ayam Tangkap?

Because I think I wanted to serve food for office’s employees who have little time, from driving here, looking for parking lot, therefore I need fast and light menu. Of course Lamb Curry and other Aceh dishes are great, but they’re too heavy, you don’t want to have them everyday. Aside from that, I’d like something that can be made spicy, crunchy (from curry leaves), but still has that distinctive aromatic Aceh notes.

What kind of ingredients or methods that define Ayam Tangkap?

The menu came from Aceh Rayeuk (this is why Acil named his business Ayam Tangkap AR). If Jakarta is surrounded by Bogor, Depok, Tangerang, Bekasi, then Banda Aceh is surrounded by Aceh Besar, aka Aceh Rayeuk.

For the naming, after I studied, we have 3 different versions. First, because the chicken is not readily served on the table, the impatient guests start complaining, “what took it so long? Do you have to catch the chicken?” The second one, because the menu use ayam kampung, which are not typically caged, they have to catch the chicken beforehand. The last one, because it was topped with lot of curry leaves, when asked where the chicken is, they answered, “you have to catch it first.”
In Aceh, Ayam Tangkap is not a personal menu. When you order it, you’ll have a whole chicken, innards included (liver and gizzard), but it was cut into small pieces, you can hold it with only one hand. In Ayam Tangkap AR, I deliberately served bigger cut because it was intended as personal menu. Actually, the menu is very similar to ordinary fried chicken, but what makes Ayam Tangkap as it is, is the curry leaves.

I think, whoever invented the menu is a genius. Imagine, curry leaves, pandan, lemongrass, shallot, and chilly is common ingredients in any Indonesian cuisines. In this menu, they’re all deep-fried in seconds until they start making cracking sound, after that I sprinkled some salt. Ayam Tangkap is genius with all of its simplicity, it’s a fried chicken with a twist.

I’ve made some modifications to suit the local taste. Ayam Tangkap is originally served with soy sauce sambal, but I assume it doesn’t fit the Jakartans’ who were obsessed with spicy food. The original one already has rich flavor, but here, I serve it with some sambal, such as my favorite kecombrang sambal, orange leaves sambal, and ganja sambal. Actually, ganja sambal is not traditionally served with Ayam Tangkap, but instead, it was served with any of Aceh dishes.

What are the modifications you made for this Reinvent section?

Ayam Tangkap is basically a rustic menu, therefore the reinterpretation should remain rustic, I don’t want anything fancy. The is to make something rustic to be even more rustic, but more vulgar, just enough to make people cringe. Those who never see Ayam Tangkap, when they are served with a whole chicken cut to small pieces wil be like, “hey, what sort of cuts are these?” I want similar reaction when they see my version, “why serve the bone? Do you really have to serve the chicken foot?” because it’s not something they commonly see everyday.

In addition, I want to make it like ayam kampung that’s playing in the garden. You can see grass and flowers. Imagine the curry leaves as the grass, shallot and chilly as flowers. Aside from making the same rustic, vulgar, surprising menu, I also want it to be more playful.