Ayam Taliwang: The best in Lombok
Just 15 minutes away by plane from Bali, Lombok is set to become the next better-than-Bali destination.
Food-wise, I think the world has only scratched Lombok's surface. Some of the better babi guling (suckling pig) cooks have sailed across that sea and landed on Lombok's shores and are making waves with the local crowd.
Arguably, the most famous dish they have is Ayam Taliwang (a sock-it-to-the-face spicy barbecue chicken dish).
And appropriately so, they held a competition for the best in the land last week at the Qunci Villas on the island.
It was the first time such a food competition was ever held (ironically, Singapore doesn't even have a chicken rice - supposedly our national dish - face-off).
Eight teams, including those from the kitchens of the top five-star hotels and humble street cafes there, competed for the honours of the inaugural cook-off.
Four judges - Gilles Marx (leading French chef of Indonesia), Farah Quinn (Indonesian celebrity chef), Dave Pynt (executive chef at Burnt Ends in Singapore) and moi - made up the decision-making team.
The setting was as enchanting as the dish - marquee by the beach resort, jazz music, smoking grills, chefs flitting about, sauces, spices, chicken parts, woks and pans were the order of the evening.
I had to take myself back to the first time I had Ayam Taliwang in Lombok last year. A cabby took me to a restaurant in town when I asked for "no tourist stuff please". Of course, there were tourists there (the informed ones) and more importantly, there were lots more locals.
This Dua Em Restaurant version blew me away. It came simply plated and I had no idea they used three types of chillies that will explode in your mouth. It was brutally spicy, to say the least.
Back to the cook-off, the gong struck and the show was on.
First up was a pretty version that came with a too-tough chicken (I know they like their birds tougher but this was battle-hardened stuff).
I gave it a five out of 10. I usually do that for the first dish in such competitions so I can adjust as I go along.
The second dish did not score high on presentation but it won over three of the four judges for taste.
Finally came the five-star resort's version, with all the stops pulled and plated over a smoking little claypot.
It was a visual feast, but I had to remind myself this is a street-born dish created with strong flavours in mind and it was not about plating and finishing. Although the other judge did give this top marks saying Indonesians like style and decadence.
Final result: Taliwang Irama restaurant won for taste, and not presentation.
The Sheraton version came in at second. But my vote went to Dua Em, which I had to have again the next day.
So if you plan to hide in Lombok, away from the noise of this Chinese New Year, Ayam Taliwang awaits you.
May the Year of the Ram be a robustly smooth one for you.
1. Taliwang Irama
Jalan Ade Irma Suryani, No. 10, Kr Taliwang, Mataram Lombok, Nusa Tenggara Barat 83238, Indonesia
Tel: +62 370 623163
Opens: 9am to 10.30pm daily
2. Dua Em Restaurant
Jalan Transmigrasi, 99, Mataram Town, Lombok, Indonesia
Tel: +62 370622914
Opens: 11am to 9pm daily
Makansutra, founded by KF Seetoh, is a company that celebrates Asian food culture and lifestyle. It publishes food guides in and around the region, produces a food series, develops interactive mobile content and services, operates foodcourts and eateries, organises food tours and events, and consults on culinary concepts.