Taste of Home: Ayo Eat, the only Indonesian eatery in Victoria

Taste of Home: Ayo Eat, the only Indonesian eatery in Victoria

Ayo Eat is a takeout Indonesian cuisine restaurant nestled in Market Square in downtown Victoria. Serving Indonesian recipes including chicken satay smothered in peanut sauce and tender beef rendang; steak soaked in coconut milk and 17 spices. Reviewers online call it a hidden gem and the best true authentic Indonesian food in Canada. “Authentic food is made or done as original” Bana states as he enjoys bringing the recipes from back home to Victoria. Ordering at a window where you can watch the traditional Indonesian food being prepared, it’s a cultural insight that fascinates customers. The ever-genial owner, Ali Syahbana (Bana) makes traditional family recipes brought from his home country — ignoring the popular trend toward international food fusion. Fully incorporating traditional South East Asian cuisine, Ayo Eat invites wanderlust tastebuds to be teleported from downtown Victoria. 

Ayo means “come” in Indonesian, Ayo Eat means, “come eat”.

Satria Brunner, a UVIC student from Jakarta, Indonesia got homesick while working on his degree in Victoria—so he decided to check out Ayo Eat. Bana’s dishes resemble Satria’s family’s cooking almost the same as the meals served at home – apart from the fresh ingredients and different intensity of the spices.  “It’s pretty similar but there’s the small things that are different like the sambal eggs and rendang would be much more spicy.” Satria says. 

The first time Satria went to Ayo Eat he discovered that Bana was more than just a chef from Indonesia. “My family from Sumatra comes from the same ethnic group as Bana. We have the same last name.” This was a reassurance for Satria, to connect to his native culture thousands of miles from home, on the streets of Victoria. 

The dish that most reminds Satira of home is the Nasi Campur Rendang—his favourite dish. To him, it recalls the traditional celebration of Eid al-Fatr, the Islamic time of celebration, when the faithful break their month’s long fast of Ramadan. Eid a-Fatr is Arabic for “breaking the fast”. It’s a colourful feast offered in family homes where neighbours and friends surround the table to celebrate the rewards of self-discipline.  “Abundance of taste. Sweet, savoury, salty, tangy, spicy, and sour. It’s all there,” Satira says, recalling family celebrations. 

The food:

Ayo Eat is an invitation to try exotic foods served at religious holidays, street foods, wedding ceremonies, and everyday home fare, from Western Indonesia. The essence of Indonesia is captured in the Ayo Eat kitchen from original recipes made from scratch, memories, and the love of culture. Even though the menu may be small, each dish packs an intriguing punch of traditional spices and sauces, unique to West Sumatra, the Indonesian that both Satria and Bana call home.  

Indonesian ingredients:

Many of the classic East Asian dishes Bana incorporates use the traditional food that grows naturally and thrives in Indonesia’s hot and rainy climate. What differentiates this cuisine from others, are the specific blends of spices and sauces incorporated in diverse cooking styles. There’s a variety of ways Indonesian food is prepared, including shallow or deep fried, grilled over hot coals, simmered, steamed, and baked with fresh ground herbs and spices added. 

Rice, known in Indonesia as Nasi, is a staple food found in just about every meal. Indonesia is the third largest rice producer in the world, as Sumatra produces nearly 60% of the country’s rice. In East Asia rice is commonly a product of paddy farming and is the rice grown under partially flooded conditions assisted by Indonesia’s heavy rainy season. Here, farmers are able to grow 3-4 rice crops a year. 

Many of the menu items include Indonesian spices, from North Sumatra. There are sambals, southeast Asian hot sauces made from tomatoes, chili, onions, ginger, and garlic, blended together for a slightly spiced mixture. Different regions in Asia create different tastes of sambal. “Bana’s sambal is a blend of spicy, tangy, and sweet.” Satira states. 

A main condiment used in Indonesian cooking is a sweet soy sauce called kecap manis. Translated to Indonesian “kecap” meaning soy sauce and “manis” meaning sweet, this sauce is thicker and sweeter than regular soy sauce since it’s made from soy and brown sugar. “This sauce can be used as a condiment like ketchup or mayonnaise is used in Canada. Kecap is used as a topping for meats, rice, and satays, or as the main ingredient of Goreng or sweet soy sauce chicken (ayam kecap manis),” Satira reveals. 

Originating from Indonesia, peanut sauce is a staple in Indonesian cooking, made from ground roasted or fried peanuts, and blended with coconut milk. The sauce gives a sweet and salty taste to chicken, pork or beef at any meal. The peanut sauce that Bana makes to flavour the Sate Ayam and Gado Gado wrap is held a secret, but traditionally the sauce is a mixture of shrimp paste, tamarind water, and kecap manis, making it a distinctive part of Indonesian cooking. The peanut sauce coats the tender chicken in a combination of sweet, salty, and spicy. Each ingredient could be tasted distinctively, from the sweet soy sauce mixed into real peanuts, while the chili paste element kept the flavour exciting with a spice kick. Each dish comes with rice, prawn chips, and a side of pickled vegetables. With tofu a popular food item in Southeast Asia, Bana includes 2 tofu options elevated with Indonesian spices.   

Dishes to try

  1. Anjali’s spring roll – Gado Gado Wrap: $4.24

Gado gado = “mix mix” (salad)

This lighter or side dish includes lettuce, yam noodles, hard-boiled egg, tofu, spinach, and cilantro, wrapped in rice paper alongside Bana’s rich sweet and salty peanut sauce. 

Bana started selling this spring roll 9 months after opening when a customer by the name Angalis asked Bana if he could make a spring roll for her. They became friends and he decided to put it on the menu on the day of her birthday, selling it for the price of her birthday and birth month.  

Tradition: Gado Gado is a salad that originated in Jakarta, Indonesia. Translated, it means “mix mix”, that is, a salad. The salad comes with vegetables, protein, typically a hard-boiled egg and tofu, peanut sauce, and shrimp chips for extra crunch.

  1. Sate Ayam: $9.99

Sate= satay
ayam= chicken 

This traditional dish includes three chicken satay skewers topped with crispy shallots and covered in Indonesian-style peanut sauce, eaten alongside rice and pickled vegetables. 

The peanut sauce is simple but still an Indonesian delicacy. It takes the spotlight in this dish. The “sate” incorporates Indonesian spices including coriander, turmeric, chopped lemongrass, garlic, and ginger combined with the sweet soy sauce “kecap manis,” for a slightly sweet taste. The fried shallots complement the thick peanut sauce, creating an abundance of textures and flavours. The taste of sweet and savoury with salty pickled vegetables in one bite is a taste unique to Western Indonesian cuisine. The combination of all the tastes in one dish had me wanting more!

Tradition: An Indonesian street food 

3. Nasi Campur Telor Sambal $12.99

Nasi Campur = mixed rice
Telor = egg
Sambal = traditional chili sauce

This dish includes hard-boiled egg topped with spicy sambal alongside rice, spicy potato chips, prawn crackers (shrimp, with tapioca, onion, garlic, and fish sauce, cooked in hot oil), and pickles. (Bana’s favourite dish because of the spices that go into it.) 

To make the spicy egg, the eggs are boiled then fried and afterwards sauced with Sambal. This egg was easily the most flavourful, sweet and spicy egg I’ve ever eaten as the sambal spice soaked up yet complimented the egg’s rich taste. The sweet spice from the sambal plays well with the salty crunch from the chips and pickled vegetables as a refreshing, balancing flavour. 

Tradition: In Indonesia, locals might eat this every day for a casual meal that can also be expected at traditional weddings. 

  1. Nasi Campur Rendang: $19.99

Nasi Campur = mixed rice
Rendang = beef or other meat cooked in Indonesian spices and coconut milk 

This dish features beef curry with rice, prawn crackers, spicy potato chips, and pickled vegetables. These distinctive Indonesian flavours come from the beef that’s been slow-cooked with 17 spices and coconut milk for 6 to 7 hours until the coconut base has evaporated leaving dry, tender meat. A spice used in the Rendang process includes tamarind, a sour fruit used to balance sweet and spicy dishes. This dish takes patience and commitment to create the rich flavours that linger in each layer. Served with rice, this is a perfect introduction to the Indonesian culture. 

Being one of the most popular dishes specific to West Sumatra, Rendang won first place for “World’s Most Delicious Food” in the CNN travel article, “Your pick: World’s 50 Best Foods” in 2017. 

Tradition: served at ceremonial events to honour guests

  1. Green Curry: $10.99-$12.99

This traditional Thai meal includes rice and vegetables cooked with a choice of prawns, chicken, or tofu. The curry prepared with a mix of dry spices is cooked into a refreshing sauce coating the rice and protein with a new identity. 

Bana learned how to make this dish in the Czech Republic from a Thai chef at the five-star Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Prague. Bana initially put this on the menu to grab people’s eye, as Western culture is familiar with this dish, customers will note this familiar dish, as they continue to read the other Indonesian menu items.  

Like other international cuisines, the spices and sauces set Indonesian food apart from western indulges. The common spices used are turmeric, cinnamon, cumin, coriander, onion, garlic, ginger, galangal, lemon grass, cloves and (obviously) chili. The common sauces include Sambal (many variations), Kecap Manis (Sweet Soy Sauce), Kecap Asin (Soy Sauce), Peanut Sauce, Fish Sauce, Oyster Sauce, and Vinegar. 

The owner and single staff: Bana

Bana was born in Rantauprapat, Indonesia and lived in Medan, Indonesia. Both are on the Island of Sumatra. The region is known as the Spice Islands, where Indonesian sailors grew tons of cloves, mace, and nutmeg and transported them to ports around the world.  In Bahasa Indonesia, the official language of the country, food specific to Sumatra is called “makanan khas”. 

In 1998, Bana moved to Japan to find work and learned about Japanese cooking and culture. He took this knowledge to new employment in the Czech Republic, soon after fell in love with the food industry and decided to make it his career. He became head chef overseeing Indonesian, Thai, and Japanese cuisine at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, in Prague. Eventually, he moved to Victoria, in 2006. where he continued work as a sushi chef at Yoshi Sushi and Shiki Sushi. Bana then saw the opportunity to open his own restaurant, when the small kitchen space became available in Market Square. Ayo Eat opened on March 17, 2010. 

Ever since this “kitchen in the wall” eatery has invited Victoria to experience Indonesian culture from Bana’s traditional cooking techniques and recipes. 

Bring your friends and “come eat” 

Ayo Eat is an Indonesian and English restaurant name that reflects how Bana wants customers to feel welcomed. The outdoor seating is limited to 2 bar stools and a ledge where customers can chat with and watch Bana create authentic meals, every dish is served in takeaway boxes. Customers are encouraged to take Bana’s creations to Market Square, the beach, or on a picnic, for a true taste of Indonesian culture within Victoria. 

Bana reduced his menu from 6 items to 5, since he is but a staff of one. With more capital, he could get a new space and hire more staff, but for now, he connects to home, in Indonesia from Victoria, serving traditional Indonesian food endowed with the authentic flavours he remembers growing up.

The first time going to Ayo without ever tasting North Sumatra Indonesian food, I expected lightly seasoned meat and rice. After the first bite, I didn’t know I could taste so many flavour and spice combinations on a bed of rice. The spices and sauces specific to North Sumatra elevated the meal into a cultural experience introducing me to a new world of cuisine. I can’t choose which I like better between the sweet and salty peanut sauce and the spicy and garlicky sambal. Tasting the tender and thick Pendang made me understand the saying “good things take time”. I left with my tastebuds telling me never to eat an egg without Sambal. With every spice and sauce revealing culture through the hybrids of flavours, I understand why Satria would miss the taste of home. Talking to Bana and Satira allowed me to get to know their culture by opening up my mouth to a taste of their home. I may not have experienced the streets of Indonesia but my taste buds want me to go. After hearing Bana exclaim “what you eat is what you are”, I see how proud Bana must be proud to grow up with this food and why Victoria deserves to immerse themself in a new identity of culture through tasting Ayo Eat. 

Bana reveals that his favourite part of the job comes from making people happy through his tiny kitchen window, sharing with them the culture of his homeland. “It feels good to share the real thing to others,” Bana says.

Make sure to give Bana a smile when you see him!

All photos by Annika Olson, Tasting Victoria Intern.

Ayo Eat

560 Johnson St

Hours: Monday from 12:30pm to 6:30pm
Tuesday to Thursday from 11:30pm to 6:30pm
Saturday from 12:30pm to 5:00pm

Written by

Annika Olson

Intern at Tasting Victoria