The most delicious of Malaysian dishes, the rendang in its many forms has become a country favourite. But understand that its diverse flavours are due to its laborious preparation. But hey, the great never come easy, right?
The Anatomy of A Rendang
To sum it up, rendang is basically a dry stew of protein, slow cooked in a marinade of fragrant spices. The key is the slow cooking where the variety of spices are simmered in low heat to bring out the flavours before adding in the protein. The common meats used are chicken or beef with cooking time taking longer for the latter as to fully tenderise it.
The pungent flavour derives from the base ingredient of herbs and aromatic spices. The typical base of Malaysian dishes includes shallots, ginger and garlic with rendang getting a dose of lemongrass and galangal. The fragrance and kick come from spices like cinnamon, cloves, turmeric and star anise. The flavour intensity further enhances with the addition of coconut milk and ‘kerisik’ or coconut paste made from toasted coconut flesh.
For Special Occasions
Rendang is known as that dish that is usually served during special occasions in Malaysia. It makes an appearance at weddings and festive holiday celebrations, eaten as a side dish or on its own. As a child, I watched my aunties cook rendang till the wee hours in the morning on the first day of Hari Raya Aidilfitri. The spices and protein were cooked in a gigantic wok, using fire from a floor burner. They used a long wooden spatula to occasionally stir the dish and watched over diligently as it cooks for about 4-5 hours.
Even the process of preparing the ingredients took some time, from blending the shallots, lemongrass and garlic to making the ‘kerisik’ at home. I remember the whizzing sound as my aunt would grate the flesh of the coconuts using a mechanical coconut grater. She would then toast the snowy finely grated insides till brown before grinding it to a paste. The rest of the flesh would be put in a sock-like tool to be squeezed into fresh coconut milk.
So you see, prepping and then cooking rendang is a time-consuming process which is probably why it is only cooked during special occasions. But all that patience rewards you with a delectable dish that will make you salivating for seconds.
The Longer, The Better
To find out more about the wonders of rendang plus some tips on how to better cook it, we chatted with Chef Halim Sultan who cooks at the Westin Hotel in Kuala Lumpur. Since Ramadan is here, the chef added his own family rendang recipe, the Ayam Rendang Minang or Minang-style chicken rendang to the hotel menu this holy month. Therefore, Westin Kuala Lumpur has a daily rotation of rendang in their restaurant but the one served this month is extra special because it is a home technique Minang-style rendang.
“I have rendang once a week with my nasi lemak. I prefer beef rendang because it is cooked longer which make it (taste) nicer,” said Chef Halim during the beginnings of our conversation. The topic of time was brought up a lot by Chef Halim. Time is what makes rendang so good and special. For a small portion at home, Chef Halim said you can whip something up in 2 hours but at the hotel, he simmers the paste for up to 4 hours before adding in the chicken. This is to allow the flavours of the ingredients like lemongrass and galangal to rise up.
What makes Minang-style rendang different from your average rendang? Well, first of all, Minang comes from the word Minangkabau which is an ethnic group of people from the Minangkabau highlands of West Sumatra, Indonesia. If you know your food well, then you would know that rendang is also popularly celebrated by our neighbouring friends.
So what makes it distinctively Minang is the use of dried chillies which are soaked in water before blending it into a paste. Others usually use bird’s eye chilli. The sliced tamarind is also special in this Minang favourite where Chef Halim explained that it is to cut the bitter taste of the spices while adding a slight hint of sour to balance the dish.
Using a shortcut by cooking rendang in a pressure cooker, Chef Halim does not recommend. Rendang must be simmered and yes it takes a long time but it is the best way for one to get that full rounded taste that is distinct in rendang. “When it comes to Malaysian food, we need to take care of our methods of preparation (for food),” urges Chef Halim.
A tip with rendang is to cook it yesterday and eat it today. This allows the rendang to rest because like chef said, “The longer, the better.”
Taste Chef Halim’s Minang-Style Chicken Rendang at the Juadah Iftar Kampung Buffet, The Living Room, Westin Kuala Lumpur. Available from 19 May till 12 June 2018. Price starts from RM158 nett per person.