Ayam Penyet: The Smashed Fried Chicken Dish From Indonesia

Here in the U.S., smashburgers have gone from trendy to ubiquitous over the past few years, but in Indonesia, smash chicken is the thing. While the original smashburgers may date for back nearly a century, ayam penyet is a more recent phenomenon that's only been around since the '90s."Ayam" is a Javanese word that means chicken, while "penyet" ... well, for some reason Google Translate is convinced that it's Javanese for "penitent." Another, more likely, translation would be "smashed" or "pressed," although perhaps this chicken compression could be seen as some kind of painful poultry penitence.

The real reason for the smashing, however, is neither to punish the chicken nor to create a clever marketing gimmick, although the latter is always a nice bonus. Instead, the smashing is intended to loosen the meat from the bones. Ayam penyet is typically made from chicken thighs. Apparently, the blow to the bird isn't meant to be so hard that it breaks the bones into fragments, but is instead a softer one that simply makes them more easily detachable by the eater. The crunchy outer coating of the chicken, however, does get broken into bits, which also serves to facilitate the eating process.

Who first came up with the idea of ayam penyet?

As ayam penyet is a fairly modern creation, this allows us to pinpoint an actual date (well, year, at least), place, and person responsible. The year would be 1992, the place Medan, which is the capital of North Sumatra, and the father of ayam penyet was a man named Pak Wardoyo. Wardoyo, the son of the man who established a chain of chicken restaurants called Ayam Bakar Wong Solo (we're not even going to ask Google what it thinks these words mean), was fond of a Surabayan dish called sambal tempe penyet that consists of fried tempeh smashed into a spicy sambal in order so that the latter may better penetrate each little crack and crevice. Wardoyo added it to the menu, but eventually, he got the idea to apply the same cooking technique to the chain's fried chicken.

Ayam penyet soon became a smash hit (ba dum tss), particularly with broke high school and college students because it was, and is, pretty cheap. Of course, there's also the fact that it's pretty darn tasty, as any fried chicken in a spicy sauce can't help but be. Five years after coming up with this creation, Wardoyo spun off another chicken chain, this one called Ayam Penyet Surabaya. As the name discloses, the chain specializes in the smashed chicken dish he created and is located in East Java's capital city, Surabaya. This is, if not coming full circle, at least paying appropriate homage to the Surabayan smashed tempe dish that is its vegan predecessor.

How ayam penyet is made

There is no one definitive ayam penyet recipe, but the technique used for most of them is fairly similar. The dish starts with chicken which is first marinated and then boiled with seasonings that might include bay leaves, coriander, galangal, ginger, lemongrass, shallots, and turmeric. The chicken may then be dipped in a rice flour batter and deep fried, although some recipes skip the batter and pan-fry the meat. Battered or naked it may be, but the chicken used for ayam penyet is generally not breaded.

As for the smashing step, some home recipes seem to omit this altogether, but the ayam will not be pendet if it doesn't get crushed to some extent. It seems, however, that "smashed" may not be an entirely accurate descriptor, since restaurants offering the dish may only press it fairly lightly using a pestle. That way, there won't be any chicken bone shards, but instead, just a nicely cracked crust that can better allow the sambal to penetrate and flavor the chicken.

How do you eat ayam penyet?

As we just mentioned, one of the reasons why the smashing -– or actually pressing -– part of making ayam pendet is so important is because the cracks it makes in the outer coating allow the sauce to seep in. The sauce, or sambal, is usually a very spicy one, sometimes tomato-based, and it may be seasoned with chiles, garlic, onions, shallots, shrimp paste, and lime juice.

While the chicken and sauce are the heart of the dish, generally ayam pendet isn't served as a stand-alone, but comes with some sides, as well. Boiled rice is standard, of course, and there may also be beans, cabbage, cucumbers, and tomatoes, as well. There might also be a few more fried garnishes, including some fried tempe that harkens back to the dish's inspiration and fried tofu that adds yet more protein to what shapes up to be quite a hearty meal.

Should you be wondering what the appropriate beverage might be to accompany such a feast, the answer is not going to be an ice-cold (or even lukewarm) beer since roughly 87% of Indonesia's population is Muslim, so they're not big boozers. Instead, the beverage of choice is likely to be sweet jasmine tea.

There are many other types of penyet dishes

So far we've spoken of ayam penyet, which is extremely popular not only throughout Indonesia but in other parts of Southeast Asia including Brunei, Malaysia, and Singapore. We've also made mention of the Surabayan specialty tempe penyet,but there are numerous other penyets, or "penyetan," as the dishes are known. Some of these are made with tofu, some with empal (fried sliced beef), and some with paru goreng (fried beef lung, a dish that demonstrates how Indonesians were nose-to-tail eaters long before the first nascent hipster hitched up their organic cotton diapers).

One place you may be able to see different types of penyetan is on the menu at certain restaurants that might specialize in chicken but have branched out a bit. One such restaurant, Malaysia's Ayam Penyet Best, has close to 20 different ones on the menu. While a few of these are variations on the eponymous chicken dish, others include terong (eggplant), lele (catfish), telur (marinated fried egg), iga (beef ribs), and the ever-popular udang penyet, which is smashed fried shrimp.

Where to find ayam penyet

Ayam penyet is, of course, something you'll have no difficulty finding just about anywhere in Indonesia. The original chain, Ayam Bakar Wong Solo, is still in business, as is the spinoff, Ayam Penyet Surabaya. Numerous other Indonesian restaurants are also offering excellent versions of this dish — some of them have the words "ayam penyet" (or at least "penyet") in the name, while some do not. Ayam penyet restaurants are thick on the ground in both Malaysia and Singapore, as well, and there are a fair few in Brunei, as well. Australia, too, is also catching on to the delights of this crushed chicken as the Southeast Asian chain Ria Ayam Penyet now has several locations in Melbourne, Sydney, and Perth.

In the United States, however, ayam penyet isn't all that easy to come by since Indonesian and Malaysian restaurants aren't quite as common as Thai ones. Still, there are a handful of places where you can get it, including Chicken Licious in San Jose; MakanMakan in Sandy, Utah; and Asian Taste 86 in Elmhurst, New York. This last-named establishment also offers tofu and tempe penyet, although the dish is not vegan or even vegetarian as the accompaniments include shrimp paste and eggs with chile sauce.