When Ayam Ayam opened in Maroubra late last year, there was already a buzz in the Indonesian community. People knew the owner Harjo from his other restaurant, Surry Hills’ Medan Ciak (which also has a CBD outpost) – one of the best Indo noodle and rice joints in Sydney – and they wanted to know what he’d be bringing to the new venue. The answer? Everything Harjo and his team couldn’t make in the tiny Medan Ciak kitchens.
Medan Ciak is so popular, people would come in all the time and ask if Harjo could make traditional recipes not on the menu. His friends would also encourage him to make the dishes he brought to potluck dinners. But the Surry Hills team was often too busy to make additional items – things such as grilled fish, gado gado, chicken satay and more.
He points to the Ayam Ayam menu to show us what’s new. There’s his version of ikan bakar (grilled fish), a common dish with hundreds of iterations all over Indonesia. Harjo uses his mum’s recipe: a whole barramundi is submerged in a secret marinade and slowly grilled over charcoals.
When Harjo opened Medan Ciak in 2017 (he was a school teacher before getting into the kitchen), he wanted to share dishes like that with Sydney: recipes that reminded him and other Medan-born Indonesians of their families and their home town, which is the capital of the province of North Sumatra.
He mentions pepes daun ubi (a powerfully flavoured meatloaf-like cake of cassava leaves, curry paste and anchovies steamed inside a banana leaf) and ayam goreng pandan (chicken thighs wrapped in aromatic pandan leaves, then deep fried) as other examples of regional specialties.
“When I first started cooking, I would call my mum up and ask for recipes. She was a caterer when I was a kid. She never said exact amounts, just what spices [to include] and how to use your instinct,” he says.
Most Indonesian restaurants in Sydney serve Javanese food, so Harjo’s dishes might seem hard-hitting because Medanese cuisine has more spice and a more intense flavour. The sambal is a good example. Ayam Ayam serves five kinds, including the typical Medan version, terasi, which is a bolognaise-coloured shrimp chilli paste with a quick and sharp burn. “I love to cook sambal; in Indonesia it’s a must with every meal,” says Harjo. “Not just in Medan but everywhere in Indonesia. We have a different one everywhere.”
He talks passionately about his food, but doesn’t really emphasise ayam bakar (grilled chicken) or ayam goreng (fried chicken) – two popular Indonesian dishes, and two of the new restaurant’s most prominent items. Which is ironic, given that the joint is literally called “chicken chicken”. When I point this out, Harjo laughs. He says the name was his sister’s idea, and it only really came about by accident. The kitchen makes these dishes using Javanese recipes, departing from the Medan focus. They’re less intense than the rest of the food here but they’re popular regardless, thanks to how well they’re done. Both styles are tender and the bakar is glistening and sweet from a spiced kecap manis glaze.