Thinking about rendang

APRIL 8 — Like many Malaysians, especially those from a Malay background, I hardly think much about rendang.

The humble dish of meat slow-cooked in spices with coconut milk and kerisik — toasted coconut — is usually only brought out during Hari Raya, or as a side dish to accompany nasi lemak and lemang.

To me, rendang almost always reminds me of Hari Raya, especially of the mad rush the day before to prepare the dish in time for the celebration: the tedious effort prepping shallots, garlic, ginger and galangal, and blending the spices for the mise en place; the glorious smell when the spice blend hits the hot oil; and the transformation of colours as kerisik and turmeric leaves are added at the end.

It is not uncommon for families — or rather the matriarch and the women — to work into the wee hours of the morning cooking these dishes for Hari Raya.

I vaguely remember the huge woks over coal fires in my mother’s village in Muar, with uncles taking turns watching over and patiently stirring the rendang to ensure it does not burn.

The furore over MasterChef UK judges Gregg Wallace and John Torode’s comments on rendang has made me pause to reconsider the dish.

Unpopular opinion: I do not really like chicken rendang, because the slow-cooking usually breaks down the chicken if tougher, older birds are not used. And just like Torode, I do not particularly enjoy the limp, jelly-like chicken skin in rendang either.

If anything, it is important to understand that no two rendang are really the same, even when the recipe is inherited.

During Hari Raya, I have the privilege of tasting three different ones cooked by my mother, my wife and my mother-in-law... and don’t you dare ask me which one I prefer lest I trigger a family feud (p.s: it’s my wife’s).

When it comes to the region, it has always been the norm that Malaysians, Singaporeans and Indonesians fight over who “owns” what dish, from chicken rice to popiah.

Torode and Wallace felt the wrath of four nations, including Malaysia’s leaders. — Picture from
Torode and Wallace felt the wrath of four nations, including Malaysia’s leaders. — Picture from

The rendang row has pushed the discourse to a higher level, bringing all three and the usually aloof Brunei together — to recognise that yes, some dishes did originate from Indonesia, such as the rendang which came from the Minangkabaus in West Sumatra.

It is not, as suggested by British High Commissioner here Vicky Treadell, an exclusively Malaysian dish.

As explained by Facebook page Nusantara Damai, which played a major role in social media mediating this issue, the name rendang itself comes from the verb “merendang” (rarely used in Malaysia) which means to cook slowly over a small fire.

On Twitter, culinary expert Arie Parikesit of Kelana Rasa explained the different types of rendang in Indonesia, some using ingredients that would be totally alien here: cassava cubes, egg, eel, jackfruit, banana blossom, jering and even mackerel.

I once tasted mushroom rendang, courtesy of my father-in-law’s late foster mother, and I regret not being able to try it ever again.

As I get older, I tend to gravitate towards rendang tok, the deeper, richer-flavoured verson popular in Perak with gula melaka in it — which I first discovered at one of those lemang stalls one would find in Jusco (now Aeon) supermarkets.

In the last few months, I have been thinking a lot about food, specifically about its authenticity, innovation, and cultural appropriation — no thanks to the seminal Netflix documentary Ugly Delicious by perhaps currently my favourite celebrity chef and restaurant owner, David Chang.

Should we celebrate the Japanese when they excel and put their own twist on Italian or French cuisine? Or when the Vietnamese community comes up with their own version of Cajun seafood?

And why is it jarring when white people try to be the authority on foreign food, especially Asian, and worst when it involves countries that they have colonised in the past?

Why isn’t Korean barbecue considered the same, or superior to American barbecue? Why are people more comfortable eating Italian stuffed pasta than Chinese dumplings?

Is the only way to make Asian food acceptable, by catering to Western tastebuds?

Most of the time the answers are not so simple.

For the past week, I have been reading up on the Balti culture in Birmingham, England — where North Indian cooks started cooking their dishes in a quicker way by stir-frying them in the small steel woks called “balti” instead of cooked in big batches in pots.

The dishes are cooked usually with the meat off the bone and using vegetable oil instead off ghee, before being served in the same “balti”, to be shared by the whole table.

The method of cooking itself originated as a way to cater to the working-class British population who prefer their food to be served quick, and prefer the lighter flavours without ghee.

It is now a heritage of Birmingham, and perhaps it succeeded so much because of the authenticity lent by the original Pakistani and Indian cooks — much like the success of the American-Chinese food, as bastardised as it is from what people eat in China.

It is in this same spirit that we should be especially cynical and bitter when Wallace commented that the chicken skin in Malaysia-born contestant Zaleha Kadir Olpin’s rendang was not crispy, just because his tastebuds are more accustomed to that preparation of chicken.

And yet, we should celebrate both the traditional versions of rendang and any innovation of the dish as a way to move it forward.

Already we have local gourmet burger chain myBurgerLab’s excellent take on a “nasi lemak burger” by putting rendang sauce in, while KFC previously served its rice bucket with fried chicken and rendang gravy.

Pouncing on the opportunity, former Masterchef Malaysia judge Johari Edrus, also known as Chef Jo, showed his take on a “crispy rendang” this week, by battering and deep-frying cooked chicken rendang, before serving it with a side of rendang sauce.

Now if you’ll excuse me, it is time I give the chicken rendang another try.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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