In the recent explosion of enthusiasm for fried chicken, Sydney has learnt a lot about buttermilk, batters from the American South and Korean sauces. But no one has really explored South East Asian varieties. Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam all have recipes and techniques for fried chicken; it does exist in Sydney – you just have to know where to find it.
Java in Randwick does Javanese-style fried chicken. “Everyone calls it JFC, that's the unofficial name,” says Java’s all-rounder Johannes Kurniawan. “We call it ayam sereh”. Its visual resemblance to KFC is the only similarity; it tastes distinctly Indonesian. Kurniawan’s mum, Wawan Kurniawan, Java’s shy but giggly owner and chef, marinates it overnight in a lemongrass-heavy spice mix. It’s then coated in a cornflour batter (for extra thickness), fried and served with balado, a tomato-based Indonesian chilli paste.
Java is one of Sydney’s oldest Indonesian restaurants, and Kurniawan is most likely one of the city’s oldest Indonesian chefs. The 73 year old has run the kitchen since it first opened more than 30 years ago. Java and its community have changed a lot since it opened in 1984 as a takeaway shop. Almost all its customers then were international students from Indonesia. “People didn't know much about Indonesian food then,” Kurniawan says. The Indonesian community didn’t start growing in Sydney’s inner east until the late ’80s and early ’90s. “It was very quiet here, there weren’t many shops.” she says.
Now the menu has seven packed pages featuring dishes from all over Indonesia, and customers come from all over the world, some of those original international students among them. “They followed us until now. They come here still. Three generations I've seen,” says Kurniawan.
They’ve kept coming back for the JFC; satay; a thick clove and star anise-rich rendang; and Balinese-style grilled chicken. The latter is covered in a paste-like sauce made with tamarind, shallots, garlic, a mixture of spices and, crucially, candlenut, a species native to South East Asia that has the texture of a macadamia with a hint of bitterness.
Every other famous Indonesian dish, whether Javanese, Balinese or Sumatran, is here too, along with a few lesser-known dishes. There’s a layered gado gado, fish cakes in banana leaves, and murtabuk, an Indonesian–Malaysian fried-roti package containing beef mince, onions and egg. There’s also an impressive range of Indonesian desserts including sticky-rice pudding with salted coconut cream; homemade durian ice-cream; and the best of all, es bumi hangus, a mound of shaved ice covering fresh avocado, young coconut slices, palm seeds, lychee and grass jelly.