As we all know there are four primary tastes – sweet, sour, bitter and salty – with umami (savoury) considered by some as a possible fifth. The Indonesian delicacy Ayam Geprek (crushed crispy chicken with sambal) has the potential to rewrite the list and add another type of taste – spicy.
Ayam Geprek’s popularity is so high in Indonesia that even small restaurants that would not normally have the spicy villain on their menu have honoured it with a golden seat. Sell Geprek and you are sure to attract customers. It is not unusual to find the name written in front of eateries to assure prospective customers that they do sell this hot item. The trend spread across Indonesia probably two to three years ago, and even some fast food restaurants have their own versions of Geprek, even a westernised version.
So, my first brush with Geprek was at one of those sambal-mongering outlets that have pedas (spicy) levels. The waitress asked me which level I wanted. They have level one to five, one being the lowest and five being the highest. I somehow sounded foolishly confident when ordering level three, assuming it would be heaven on my palate. The girl particularly asked, “Level three?” That gave me pause for thought, but I didn’t want to withdraw my first confident-sounding words for fear of my lack of knowledge being discovered.
The Geprek arrived, neatly placed in a bowl which had a picture of a red chicken raising its eyebrows with the name of the restaurant printed below in a threatening font. The level three box was ticked next to the picture and the name. This was not a single piece of chicken, but minced chicken pieces mixed with rice and spicy sambal bawang. After my third bite, I felt something epiphanous. My tongue was really getting harrassed by this time and slow, measured ejaculations of hu..ha..hu..ha were vainly battling a welcomed enemy. At this moment, I became conscious of my waitress sitting in a corner and watching me surreptitiously.
I had only eaten a quarter of the bowl, but by now my tears were flowing uncontrollably. I used my hands and tissues to hide them as much as possible. The waitress sensed it and chuckled to one of her fellow workers who cautiously glanced at me, unable to suppress a naughty smile.
Meanwhile, the remaining portion in the bowl was taunting me with red-tinged chicken layers that looked like burning embers. I kept drinking water, slowly filling my stomach. However, I decided to finish the meal. More tongue burn, more tears, until I saw off my opponent in not-very-convincing style. My battered tongue and swelled, reddish eyes (as red as the sambal) suggested a Pyrrhic victory.
Having experienced this once, I decided to be more cautious about this irresistible food that has won so many hearts and palates. I knew the levels by now. The next time I chose a very traditional Geprek. The chicken was fried in a conventional way (usually called Ayam Goreng or Penyet) and had a red carpet of sambal terasi over it. I couldn’t quite survive this so part of the sambal had to be abandoned on the plate as a sign of surrender and peace.
Ayam Geprek remains popular and has grown to be an inevitable item on the menus of many restaurants, whether you are in a kampung or a big city like Jakarta. It comes in various kinds – sliced chicken, chicken leg or breast or the usual crushed crispy chicken, all mixed or coated with red hot sambal. Indonesians seem to love the pedas effect so much that many of them tend to ask for extra sambal. The fiery taste seems to exude a kind of self-inflicted thrill that is followed by a cold drink. For group dining, Ayam Geprek assumes the greater role of companion, that goes along with chit chat and guffaws.
At home, my wife gave it another avatar. She cooked simple chicken steak and poured some sambal bawang mixed with cashew nuts over it and served it to me with rice. We called it Steakprek. How does that sound?