What would Hari Raya (Eid festivals), kenduris and other Malay family gatherings be without Rendang? The Rendang takes centre stage and is meticulously prepared and presented during these festivals. Festivals without Rendang would be like burgers without fries or fish without chips.
What is Rendang? It is generally a spicy, meat dish slow cooked in Santan (coconut milk). Rendang is said to have originated from the Minangkabau ethnic group of Sumatra, Indonesia. One of the earliest written records of Rendang is from the early 16th century Hikayat Amir Hamzah. Hikayat Amir Hamzah is a Malay literary work that chronicles the heroics of Amir Hamzah, one of the two Hikayats mentioned in Sejarah Melayu. Sejarah Melayu or The Malay Annals, originally titled Sulalatus Salatin (Genealogy of Kings), is a literary work that gives a romanticized history of the origin, evolution and demise of the great Malay maritime empire, the Melaka Sultanate. Composed sometime between 15th and 16th centuries, it is considered to be one of the finest literary and historical works in the Malay language. We can safely assume that Rendang has been around much earlier than the 15th century.
How would you describe the taste of Rendang? The generous use of herbs, spices, and Santan, would probably give you a hint of the complexity and uniqueness of its taste. Commonly, ginger, galangal, turmeric leaves, lemongrass, shallots and chilli are the herbs that are commonly used. Spices found in Rendang can vary from Cumin, Cinnamon, Star Anise, with Coriander seeds being most generously used spice for making the very dry, delicious, Rendang Serunding. Rendang texture can be wet, semi-dry or very dry depending on the creator’s intention. It can also be cooked with spices or none, but herbs described above are a must. Another crucial ingredient is Kerisik, which is grated coconut toasted until golden brown and pounded to form an oily paste. A key issue in making Kerisik is in toasting the grated coconut. If it is done too long, you can easily burn the coconut and end up with a bitter-tasting Kerisik and Rendang. Stop too soon and you won’t get the caramelized coconut flavor. With experience, you should be able to toast the coconut just right. Oh yes, there are versions of Rendang that do not use Kerisik as in the well-known Minangkabau (Sumatra) version.
Rendang is normally eaten with Nasi Minyak (the Malay version of Indian Beryani) or normal rice, pulut (sticky rice), ketupat (rice packed and cooked in coconut leaves) or even bread. Rendang with Nasi Lemak (rice cooked in coconut milk) is a favorite among Malaysians. The Rendang’s popularity has even inspired a well-known American pizza restaurant to create its version of pizza with Rendang sauce.
According to a respected food writer and critique from Australia, “It is the one dish I believe is worth its weight in gold. If it was me cooking it, I would serve what may be a few Malaysian Ringgit worth of ingredients on an expensive platter because that is where it belongs.”