Although Lombok means ‘chili’ in the local Sasak language its cuisine is not particularly spicy; dishes are often tempered with creamy coconut and candlenut, or emphasise tangy tamarind and terasi (shrimp paste). If you spy a Lombok restaurant beyond the bobtail squid-shaped island to Bali’s east it’s likely to have ‘taliwang’ in its name. Ayam taliwang is Lombok’s signature dish: whole, halved ayam kampung (which translates as ‘village chicken’, meaning small and lean) is smothered in a distinctive, hot and sweet spice paste then grilled or fried. As with many illustrious comestibles however its exact origin is elusive. Some accounts state H. Abdul Hamid invented the recipe in 1970 in Karang Taliwang, a sub-district of Mataram, West Nusa Tenggara’s capital on Lombok’s west coast. Others claim it was born in the kitchen of Rumah Makan Ayam Taliwang I, Mataram’s first restaurant.
Though its genesis is ambiguous the uniqueness of ayam taliwang’s flavour is irrefutable. Red chili, garlic and terasi are the paste’s foundations but the result is far more complex than the sum of its parts with robust Indian and Portuguese flavours bursting through. The cooking process is less straightforward too; the free range fowl is grilled until half done, then tenderised and submerged in simmering oil for a few seconds. The paste is then liberally applied before the chicken is grilled or fried. Pelalah, a thin, silky red sauce accompaniment consisting of coconut milk, candlenut, red and green chili, garlic and terasi is especially redolent of Indian aromas.
Plecing kangkung is the staple Sasak vegetable dish. Kangkung (also known as water spinach and morning glory) is a wonder veg consumed across South East Asia and China as it grows prolifically in waterways with minimal cultivation. A blanched, tender tangle of hollow shoots and leaves is dolloped with sambal plecing, a pungent sauce of diced tomato, red chili, garlic, shallots, kaffir lime and star ingredient, terasi. It’s usually served with a little mound of serundeng (sautéed finely grated coconut and garlic), and scattered with bean sprouts and peanuts. Piquant plecing kangkung is the perfect culinary companion for rich and fiery ayam taliwang.
Sasak cuisine also encompasses some rather unusual vegetarian dishes. Sayur lebui is a sharp, salty soup of kedelai hitam (black soy beans – the primary ingredient in ubiquitous condiment kecap manis) steeped in seasoned coconut milk. Urap timun is a cooling relish of cucumber, coconut, shallots and salt, and sayur ares is a velvety yellow curry of young banana shoots. The Sasak’s favourite sambal, sambal beberuk, is a crunchy concoction of raw baby eggplant and crisp green beans.
For traditional market aficionados Pasar Kebon Roek in the charming old port town of Ampenan is unmissable. Capacious bamboo baskets bulging with a panoply of radiant, ripe fruit, verdant vegetables and a vast array of beans and spices cascade from a cavernous two-storey building containing even more produce, meat and fish. Before you’re overwhelmed by the bustling throng of buyers make a beeline for the man with the bamboo fan near the building’s entrance and request a serve of his sate pusut. Minced chicken is combined with a hefty handful of grated coconut, coconut milk, lime juice and sugar and molded onto sugarcane or lemongrass sticks. It’s zesty and devilishly sweet; another Sasak flavour that’s truly unique.
Not far from Pasar Kebon Roek is whimsical Jalan Pabean wending down to a dark sand coast. Most of its houses and shop fronts beam in a cheerful palette of bright orange, yellow, blue and green – it’s a gorgeous sight. Near the mouth of Jalan Pabean is Mie Manalagi II, a basic eatery which serves hundreds of bowls of mie teki from late morning to early afternoon. The immensely popular Chinese Indonesian dish proffers a scrumptious smattering of poultry and porcine delights; thin egg noodles are topped with glistening pangsit (steamed pork dumplings), bakso ayam (strongly spiced chicken meatball), and the pièce de résistance, crunchy, caramelly pork fat crumbs. It’s complemented by a bowl of steaming kuah (chicken broth) and sweet, spicy sambal. A Lombok sojourn is worth it for sublime mie teki alone.