Back Eat & Drink » Saigon Hẻm Gems » Hẻm Gems: Indonesia's Ayam Penyet Is a Smashing Celebration of Spices

Hẻm Gems: Indonesia's Ayam Penyet Is a Smashing Celebration of Spices

The most straightforward definition by which to explain ayam penyet to the Vietnamese layperson is perhaps “cơm gà Indo.” It’s technically not wrong: the dish has rice and chicken, and originates from Indonesia. But once you've actually sunk your teeth into this special fried chicken, the translation seems unfairly reductive because ayam penyet is so much better than the sum of its parts.

You can’t go 500 meters in Saigon without bumping into cơm gà. Combining the cheapest carbohydrate and the cheapest meat, permutations of chicken rice are available to people of all ages, financial situations, and walks of life. With just VND50,000 or less, Saigoneers can wolf down a portion of Hainanese-style chicken rice or crispy cơm gà xối mỡ just around the corner from their natural habitat. This poultry love is not limited to Saigon, as many other Vietnamese localities have concocted their own versions as well, such as cơm gà Hội An, Phú Yên, Nha Trang, and Phan Rang, among others.

Ayam Penyet Vindo's light box.

As a cơm gà hobbyist, I find great pleasure in its level of ubiquity, but for home cooks aspiring to break into the commercial scene with their own creations, this means there are many chickens in the market to compete against. The owner duo behind Ayam Penyet Vindo, Lizam and Ricoh, find the popularity of cơm gà in Vietnam both an opportunity and a challenge to overcome — how to convince local customers’ taste buds that ayam penyet is not just typical rice with fried chicken.

Originating from Java, ayam penyet is nothing fancy, though its accessibility means there are thousands of versions out there. “Ayam” means “chicken” and “penyet” is Javanese for “smashed.” After being fried, the chicken leg is pounded to break up the meat. Some theorize that the action is to make it easy to eat ayam penyet by hand, but Ricoh tells me that it’s to release the moisture so that once sambal is applied on top, the meat will absorb the sauce, becoming more flavorful.

According to Singaporean food blogger Tony Boey, this now-commonplace dish had its beginning in sambal tempe penyet from the East Javan city Surabaya where tempeh — fermented whole soybeans pressed into blocks — is fried and pressed into a plate of sambal. This is a favorite meal of Pak Wardoyo, the son of Puspo Wardoyo, the founder of Ayam Bakar Wong Solo restaurant chain, so he added it to their menu, and later Pak incorporated fried chicken to form a new dish called “ayam penyet” in 1992. The smashed chicken gradually grew in fame, spreading to the rest of the country, and even to nearby neighbors like Malaysia, Singapore, and now Vietnam.

From house party to restaurant

Having sampled some particularly memorable ayam penyet versions in Singapore, I often find myself daydreaming about sambal chicken and airy fried batter flakes. A spontaneous Google query during the lockdown in 2021 brought up Ayam Penyet Vindo, a casual upstart promising authentic fried chicken from their home base on Cống Quỳnh Street, which has since shuttered as the Vindo duo ventured outside the alley onto the streets of downtown District 1. As you make a turn from Điện Biên Phủ into Mạc Đĩnh Chi, it’s impossible to miss the bold red-and-yellow sign of Vindo. The restaurant’s dining area is sparse, with a small entrance furnished with a few table sets, and a cozy air-conditioned corner upstairs.

Vindo is open from 10am to 10pm.

Vindo is run by Lizam, a Malaysian, and Ricoh, an Indonesian, who had been close friends for years before they decided to dip their toes into the F&B world. Lizam, with salt-and-pepper hair and a warm demeanor, represents the cautious, measured half of the pair, while bespectacled Ricoh fills in the rest with an adventurous streak and knowledge of Indonesian cuisine.

Back in Malaysia, the two met in 2014 while working for the same rubber company: Lizam in marketing and Ricoh in a technical role, a dynamic that they said carried over into the restaurant’s genesis. The friends moved to Vietnam in 2016 and 2017, following a call for a foreign partnership from a Vietnamese rubber company. Working together in Vietnam, they once shared an apartment and sometimes would cook dishes from home; this was the setting for the first spark leading to Vindo. Being an Indonesian restaurant, Vindo’s original chicken recipe naturally came from Ricoh, though once they realized that this flavorsome chicken was something special, they worked together to perfect it into an easy-to-follow recipe for the kitchen staff. 

Lizam and Ricoh, the owners, came to Vietnam in 2017 and 2016, respectively.

“One day, in the evening, I fried chicken, then he [Lizam] said he loved it so much. Then I suggested ‘how about we make ayam penyet?’” Ricoh recalls. He would make ayam penyet again for a Malaysian buddy, and slowly the tasty fried chicken gained a reputation among their Malaysian and Indonesian friends in Saigon. “They love the chicken so much, so people would call and say ‘Please come to my house and eat chicken together.’ They ask me to cook the chicken. I said ‘Oh my god, I cannot cook for you every day.’”

We pooled the money, got the place, and rented it. Do first, worry later.

Nonetheless, getting from “this is some delicious chicken, we should sell it” to opening an actual business is not a simple A-to-B journey. “We didn’t agree [on the decision to open the restaurant]. We spent a month or two playing devil’s advocate. He was ‘pro,’ I was ‘con,’” Lizam explains. “After a while, Ricoh said ‘let’s just rent a place and do it.’ So we pooled the money, got the place, and rented it. Do first, worry later.” It took them about a month to test the whole dish together to reach a final product that can appeal to most Saigoneers, meaning trying to temper the heat in the sambal so as not to blow people’s heads off with Indonesia-level spiciness.

A chicken by any other name

Clockwise: ayam panggang, ayam penyet, ayam kremes, gado-gado, and nasi goreng in the middle.

At Vindo, the menu is decidedly straightforward: the main attraction is chicken leg quarters done in various ways. The headliner, of course, is ayam penyet, a fried chicken leg gently smashed and slathered in a coat of bright, pungent sambal. Ayam panggang instead subjects the leg to open flame in a grill while rendang ayam is chicken that has been braised for hours in coconut milk and a host of aromatics. If one is tired of poultry, there’s also fried rice in the form of nasi goreng, and a sweet peanut salad in the form of gado-gado, both officially recognized as Indonesian national dishes. Each chicken plate arrives with rice, fried tofu, tempeh, and a dollop of sambal.

Nasi goreng.

Gado-gado.

Differentiating their fried chicken from the corner cơm gà in the eyes of eaters is a continuous concern for the pair, though, if the addition of sambal and native accouterments like tempeh is not enough to do that, the flavor of the chicken leg would surely suffice. Having been parboiled with spices before being fried, the chicken absorbs much of its surroundings to stand on its own, but the sambal topping really equips it with a powerful punch. Notes of galangal, turmeric, chili, and garlic seep into every bite, cutting the oily side of the frying. We enjoy the sambal so much that we have to order an extra bowl to smear on everything.

The flavorful chicken is enveloped in a layer of sambal.

A slice of tempeh.

According to Ricoh, every day he has to make three batches of fresh sambal, each with a different level of heat. If this was Indonesia, we likely would need just one — at the hottest level — but alas the sweet tooth of Saigoneers necessitates palatal coddling. I am guilty as charged, and I enjoy dipping my chicken into the Level 1 sambal a lot.

Vindo’s ayam penyet is just as delectable as my memory serves, but admittedly, it’s just No. 2 in my ranking of dishes here: the first position belongs to their rendang ayam. It’s a festive treat whose main method of imbuing flavors into the meat is by cooking it for hours and hours, as Lizam aptly puts in my favorite description of anything we sampled during our visit: “Rendang is like ‘Danggg, you don’t have rendang?’” Its existence is so natural in any self-proclaimed Indonesian eatery that people will bemoan its lack thereof. With every slight maneuver of my cutlery, the meat falls off the bone, deeply infused with a coconut-rich sauce that prompts me to demolish the entire portion of rice as quickly as it arrives.

Ayam kremes.

Ayam panggang.

There used to be a time when Vindo’s following was made up of nearly all Malaysians and Indonesians, but now, they tend to book takeaway orders rather than make time to dine in. On weekends, Indonesian households living in suburban Saigon or nearby localities visit the restaurant as a stop during a family outing, but during the weekday lunch rush, Vindo’s tables host groups of Japanese office workers, curious passersby, and even gaggles of young Vietnamese eager to sample new, exciting food.

“We are a halal restaurant. People always think halal is ‘no pork,’ but it’s actually much bigger than that, it’s about the cleanliness, method of preparation, and the animals being used. We want to portray that it’s not just for Muslims,” Lizam says. “When you put in effort, when the food is good, the people are happy. The love is there.”

Ayam Penyet Vindo is open from 10am to 10pm.

To sum up:

Taste: 5/5
Price: 4/5
Atmosphere: 4/5
Friendliness: 5/5
Location: 4/5

Khôi loves chicken, is a raging millennial and will write for food.

Ayam Penyet Vindo

69 Mạc Đĩnh Chi, Đa Kao Ward, D1

Print
icon

Related Articles

Khoi Pham

in Saigon Hẻm Gems

Hẻm Gems: A Nasi Lemak in Saigon That Evokes Memories of Hawker Centers

As I gaze at the glorious eight-dish Malaysian banquet on our table at Makiucha, perfectly spaced by our photographer, popping with colors and wafting off aromas of rich spices, it becomes apparent to...

Khôi Phạm

in Saigon Hẻm Gems

Hẻm Gems: 60 Years of Guangdong-Style Chinese Food at Chợ Cũ's Chuyên Ký

Besides being the “it” place to obtain imported goods, Saigon’s chợ cũ, or Old Market, is also a treasure trove of hidden eateries.

in Saigon Hẻm Gems

Hẻm Gems: A Thai Feast on a Hẻm Pavement, With Vietnamese Fusion Twists

While Thailand and Vietnam have long been perpetual rivals in the football arena, at this streetside Hẻm Gem, the two cultures forge a harmonious relationship.

Khoi Pham

in Saigon Hẻm Gems

Hẻm Gems: Curry Shika and 12 Years of Making Memories in Saigon

Unlike a normal human, there is a chance that my body is not 70% water, but 70% curry; and a good 50% of that might actually be Japanese curry.

Khoi Pham

in Saigon Hẻm Gems

Hẻm Gems: Lão Hương Thân, One of Saigon's Oldest Cơm Gà Xối Mỡ Restaurants

Is there anything quite as glorious as beautifully done fried chicken?

Khôi Phạm

in Saigon Hẻm Gems

Hẻm Gems: The Best Fried Chicken Rice in Saigon Is in District 8

The success story of Cơm Gà 142 epitomizes the impressive marriage between technology and word of mouth in Vietnam’s golden age of food delivery startups.

Partner Content