Op-ed
Essay
21 Apr 2022

Tales and Trends on Ayam Be Tutu

What is so special about Ayam Be Tutu and why is this ‘unremarkable’ chicken dish not any more popular?

Text
Sri Pande W
Illustration
Debora E. Yuza
Topics
Ayam Betutu
Bali
Base Genep
Chicken
Chicken Chronicles
Culture
Kuliner Bali
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My late grandmother from my father’s side was the matriarch of the family. She united us through food which she cooked in her open Balinese kitchen in a traditional wood fire stove made of red clay. Whenever there were ceremonies (and as a Balinese there were plenty) she would whip out a feast and there would always be her Ayam Be Tutu or Chicken Betutu. 

Ayam Be Tutu is a Balinese chicken dish and stands for “Be” which means meat and “Tutu” which is the process in which it is cooked. Usually, the “Be” is duck but these days chicken is the choice of protein. Each region has its version of the dish (famously Ubud, Gilimanuk and Klungkung), deepened by their own special flavors to suit the liking of the local community. But generally, they all have a similar spice mix and are cooked through a slow fire to create the succulent meat texture with the slight tinge of sweet and salty.

When I went on Tiktok through the numerous videos of #kulinerbali, the trending hashtag of all things culinary in Bali, I saw the constant stream of babi guling, sate babi, bebek goreng. To my surprise, it took me a while to find a video on the goodness of Ayam Be Tutu. When I surveyed some of my friends in Bali, they never seemed to think much of it whereas my non-Balinese friends would opt for pork dishes in Bali due to their novelty. 

So that made me wonder, what is so special about Ayam Be Tutu and why is this ‘unremarkable’ chicken dish not any more popular? 

Ayam Be Tutu and The King of Spices

Iwe Bokel, or Uncle Bokel in Balinese, is the second generation to run Ayam Be Tutu Bu Kasih founded in the 1970s in Peliatan, Ubud. He’s inherited the warung from his grandma, who the warung was named after, and opens it with his wife every day from 7 AM. If I’m early enough I would be able to have his nasi campur for breakfast, which has Ayam Be Tutu and other side dishes that have been on the menu since it was established.

Every evening, Iwe Bokel has his own ritual in cooking Ayam Be Tutu which attributes to the dish’s distinctive tenderness. After lathering the ayam kampung with spices, he would wrap it in a dried midrib of a Pinang tree and lay it down in a mountain of rice husks – with bags of them all over his house. He burrows burning pieces of dried coconut husk between the pile of rice husk which insulates the heat. The airy character of the rice husks acts as its own internal timer, able to retain heat without burning the bird. By 3 AM, Iwe Bokel is awakened by a whiff of the spices cooking through the natural wrappers signifying that it’s done cooking. 

“What’s important is this,” he scoops out a handful of Base Genep, which roughly translates to the “everything spice mix” consisting of 15 different spices and assorted edible rhizomes. It’s the Balinese ‘King of Spices’. The combination between the spices and a skinny ayam kampung (also called a red chicken because of its naturally red meat) creates a tasty reaction that tastes and smells Balinese.

Historically, Base Genep has been mentioned in the old lontar or historical palm books which was written around 2000 years ago. It was around this same time that Balinese people documented the Subak, the irrigation system which revolutionized farming on the island. Others believe that Base Genep was founded in the 9th century, around the time when the island started trading with outside communities such as India. 

Many people believe that these spices have a symbolism of their own. At the crux of Base Genep are kunyit, cekuh (kencur), isen (laos) and jahe. Isen symbolizes the color red due to its skin and the spice represents the Southern direction which is the direction of Dewa Brahma, kunyit being yellow symbolizes the Western Direction and symbolizes Dewa Mahadewa, cekuh (kencur) which is white symbolizes the East and represents Dewa Iswara and jahe represents the color black which symbolizes the North direction and Dewa Wisnu. When together, these spices balance each other out to create Base Genep – just like the Gods are responsible for the balance of life. 

I asked Iwe Bokel, doesn’t every household have its own version of Base Genep? “Yes, but they don’t have my hands,” he says, as he was referring to his almost sixth-sense skill towards making Base Genep. He wouldn’t be able to tell you how many grams each spice is required. He continues, “a long time ago when I was still a child I would come back home after school and my mother would teach me how to make it from scratch. It really taught me how to feel the spices.” 

Timeless Cooking and TikTok

Wi Bokel is a purist; to him, Ayam Be Tutu is a dish that is strictly wrapped in some sort of dried leaf and cooked over a small fire and rice husk for a long period of time. It’s the way his grandma and his mother did it. To use a pressure cooker or get a head start by steaming the chicken would be sacrilegious. The abundance of time is at the essence of the dish. 

When I asked him why Ayam Be Tutu isn’t as popular as Babi Guling, he pointed out that both dishes use the same Base Genep mix. However, Babi Guling only needs 4 hours to make whereas Ayam Be Tutu takes 6 hours or more, which makes it hard to cook on a daily basis. To make Base Genep is also time-consuming when one could just coat a chicken in sweet soy sauce and call it a day. To Wi Bokel, his Ayam Be Tutu caters towards the village due to its taste and affordability. 

And frankly Ayam Be Tutu doesn’t have the same effect as the ‘Kriuk Challenge’, the TikTok challenge that would test out the crispiness of crispy pork skin. 

Another good point was Ayam Be Tutu’s availability in Balinese ceremonies. Every Hindu ceremony, like a baby blessing or a Balinese birthday, has a banten or offering to the Gods and ancestors consisting of fruits, cakes and animal products, like pork, chicken eggs or duck. These foods can be eaten by the community afterwards. My dad observed that most of the time chicken is cheaper than pork so people would choose to cook chicken for smaller ceremonies and offerings, while they save their money to cook pork at extra special ceremonies, like weddings and funerals. The suckling pig became a novelty eaten during special events. Unfortunately, this turned Be Tutu into ‘that one dish that’s in every event.’ 

No matter, I still enjoy mine whenever I wake up early enough to buy a meal at Wi Bokel’s or in any Balinese ceremonies. It reminds me of home and the spices are familiar to my taste buds. It may not feel as indulgent as other Balinese dishes but I always believe in the power of the simple and humble Be Tutu.

Warung KASIH
F7M9+WQX, Peliatan, Kecamatan Ubud
Kabupaten Gianyar, Bali 80571

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