Hari Raya is fast approaching and that precipitates one immutable certainty: the appearance of rendang on the festive table. In Malaysia, rendang and Hari Raya are synonymous, intertwined entities. For most Malaysian Muslims, it is simply impossible to imagine celebrating Hari Raya without rendang.
Next week, in homes across the country, people will be whipping out time-honoured rendang recipes – from rendang itik in Negri Sembilan to rendang tok in Perak. The cooking techniques and ingredients might differ from state to state (and family to family) but one thing remains true: a steadfast love for rendang.
A brief history of rendang
The origins of rendang are attributed to the Minangkabau people from west Sumatra in Indonesia. The Minangkabau people were said to have utilised water buffaloes and included spices which were brought to the region by Indian traders, who had been around since the second century, to make their version of rendang.
Although there is some agreement that perhaps the earliest known rendang recipes were discovered in Indonesia, many food historians say it is impossible to pinpoint exactly who invented rendang, as South-East Asians typically rely on oral tradition in the form of recipes passed down from mother to daughter and the tales of itinerant storytellers (penglipur lara) to provide historical context, as opposed to written documents and inscriptions.
Additionally, many centuries ago, there were a similar availability of spices throughout the Nusantara region (the spice trade in Melaka being one prime example), and some versions of rendang could have existed around the same time, even if they weren’t initially called rendang.
“I would concede that maybe some of the earliest known recipes of rendang did come from west Sumatra. But I do assert that because people moved about so much – the idea of just one recipe is not fair to the other renditions or versions of rendang.
“And I’d also say that there are cases where recipes similar to rendang were independently found and created by cooks in a kampung and it became famous locally. But it was so similar to rendang that later on when outsiders came and tasted it, they said, ‘Oh, it tastes like rendang’ and the locals started calling it rendang, ” says local food historian Ahmad Najib Ariffin, better known as Nadge.
Nadge also adds that if rendang was truly a recent Indonesian import, then all rendang in Malaysia would taste exactly like the rendang in Indonesia.
“Rendang is really something so widespread, so dispersed that it is impossible to pinpoint where it started. And if you look at all the various types of rendang in Malaysia, they should all have the same taste as in Indonesia. But the truth is, they don’t. Each of the rendang in Malaysia tastes quite different from the rendang in Indonesia, ” he says.
In any case, according to Nadge, the word “rendang” itself was originally a Malay verb that meant “slow stir-fry” or even “simmer stir-fry”, which is how the dish got its name – from the traditional way of slow-cooking the meat with spices, herbs and coconut milk for hours over wood fires to elicit tender, flavourful meat coated in a thick rendang gravy.
“Over time, when the word became a noun/name closely associated with the dish, the verb became less and less used, at least in Malaysian Malay, ” affirms Nadge.
Rendang in Malaysia
So what’s in a rendang? Rendang typically makes use of beef or chicken, although iterations exist that make use of animal entrails (lungs, heart, etc) as well as duck, seafood and dried prawns.
In a rendang, there will be fresh herbs and aromatics like onions, garlic, ginger, galangal, lemongrass, chillies as well as an array of spices like coriander seeds, cardamom, star anise, cumin, aniseed, cinnamon sticks, turmeric, black pepper and other spices, the balance and number of which is largely predicated on individual preference.
Additionally, rendang will typically also include the addition of copious amounts of coconut milk as well as kerisik (toasted, pounded grated coconut) which gives it that deliciously nutty aftertaste. Other variable ingredients can include palm sugar, tamarind skin (asam keping) and turmeric leaves, among many others.
In most cases, rendang is cooked for anywhere from two to eight hours – the longer the cooking time, the drier (and hardier) the rendang, which was likely how it first started out as a traveller’s meal and ended up being shared, tasted and recreated by so many people in the region.
The thing that sets a rendang apart from a quintessential curry is that the kuah rendang (rendang gravy) is cooked down and reduced until it is thick and binds with the rest of the ingredients. When placed on a ladle, rendang doesn’t pour easily; instead it should form a thick coating that smothers the meat or chicken like a second skin.
Based on his travels and research, Nadge estimates that there are at least 40 kinds of rendang in South-East Asia – meaning in a blind tasting, people would be able to distinguish these different variants from each other.
Two popular versions
In Malaysia, distinct versions of rendang abound, with the two most popular homegrown rendang being rendang tok and rendang Minang.
Rendang tok is a proud product of the state of Perak. According to Nadge, the recipe is a homespun affair invented by palace cooks and tailored to the consumption predilections of the Perak royal family.
As the cooks were commoners, they brought the recipe to their own homes and in this way, the dish was spread to a wider audience and became a Perak staple.
Arguments abound about which district in Perak has the best rendang tok, but purists believe that the superior version is to be found in the royal town of Kuala Kangsar.
Rendang tok is unique among all the different types of rendang because it is very, very dry. In a rendang tok, the meat, herbs (according to Nadge, cekur root is key in a rendang tok), spices, coconut milk and kerisik are cooked for hours until a layer of oil emerges.
But unlike most rendang, after this stage, the cooking process continues further until the liquid has evaporated and the colour of the rendang changes from orangy-brown to a dark, bark colour.
The result is a hedonistic affair where a thick layer of spices and coconut saturate every fibre and morsel of the meat, resulting in a multi-layered flavour explosion.
Rendang Minang (or rendang Nogori, as it is referred to locally), on the other hand, is extremely popular in Negri Sembilan.
It has its roots in the Minangkabau people from west Sumatra who liked to merantau (travel) and settled in the state from the 13th century onwards and brought their ideas and recipes with them.
According to Nadge, many of the Minangkabau people intermarried with the Orang Asli Jakun, resulting in evolutions and diversionary takes on some of the recipes that they brought. As a result, the rendang Minang of Negri Sembilan today is quite different from the popular version available in Indonesia.
In the Malaysian edition, the rendang is more moist than its Indonesian brethren and even the cooking process can differ.
“The way they cook rendang Minang in Indonesia is different from how we do it here. Over there, they would start with the coconut milk and reduce the coconut milk and add the spices and then the meat.
“But here in Malaysia, the sequence can be different and some home cooks even add everything together, ” says Shahrim Karim, a professor of Malaysian heritage food and culture at Universiti Putra Malaysia.
Leaves and shoots
Although rendang tok and rendang Minang are probably the most popular versions of rendang in Malaysia, other variations exist, like the greenish-hued rendang cili padi in Negri Sembilan as well as rendang Sarawak, a Borneo Malay staple that incorporates the use of julienned turmeric leaves.
In states like Terengganu, there are also dishes like kerutup – which closely resemble rendang, but are not actually called rendang.
Perhaps the most interesting rendangs in Malaysia are the rendang daun, like rendang daun ubi kayu (tapioca leaves), rendang daun pegaga (Indian pennyworth) and rendang daun maman.
Many of these leafy rendang arose out of convenience i.e. people used leaves and shoots that were indigenous and widely available in their area.
Rendang maman, for example, is a specialty dish in Negri Sembilan as maman trees grow in Kuala Pilah and Gemencheh (in other states, the leaves are sometimes pickled.) Rendang maman has to be cooked for hours to attain crunchy leaves and to attain just the right flavour, as too much cooking will result in a very bitter concoction.
In Gemencheh, rendang maman is a Hari Raya delicacy, although it is largely inaccessible and unknown outside the state.
To make these leaf-based rendang, edible leaves are normally finely julienned and cooked with cili padi, ikan bilis, herbs and coconut milk until the leaves are dry and almost crusty.
Interestingly, these rendang often don’t contain any other additional spices.
Patience is a virtue
One of the guiding principles that govern rendang-making is intention, or pasang niat.
What this essentially means is that when you set out to make a rendang, you must intend to finish it, because spending hours standing over a hot stove is no child’s play and if you don’t have the niat, your rendang simply won’t make the cut.
“I do agree that there is a deeper philosophy in which niat is quite important. For many other dishes, you don’t have to exert too much time and effort.
“But for rendang, you do need to have the niat that you want to do it and you want to finish it, because if not, you’re going to waste everything, ” says Nadge.
In Minang culture, there is even a tradition called merandang, where the women in the family gather together to cook rendang, imparting the importance of patience, persistence and wisdom to their daughters in eliciting a successful rendang.
It is these philosophies and the time investment required that has likely earned rendang the sobriquet ‘head of the dishes’ in Minang culture and also contributed to its rise as a celebratory dish that typically only gets served during important festivals and celebrations like Hari Raya.
As it stands, in modern Malaysia today, Hari Raya simply wouldn’t be complete without rendang.
“Without rendang, there is no Raya. Rendang is so versatile because you can serve it with ketupat, lemang, nasi and nasi impit – all these go well with rendang. And for Hari Raya, people will cook a lot of rendang – in my house we cook up to 10 kilos of meat and the longer it is kept, the better the taste. And normally every day after that, my grandmother will re-heat it and it will get drier and more delicious, ” says Shahrim.
Ultimately, rendang continues to have an enduring place in the local culinary tapestry and the reason for this is fairly simple: it is infallibly, addictively good.
“Rendang has so many subtle tastes and aftertastes to it – it just offers a more detailed, nuanced flavour profile compared to other dishes, ” summarises Nadge.
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